Ssimelo and Busi were great friends. They lived in the same village, went to the same school and had the same dreams: they both wanted to go to the city where they were quite sure that they could learn to be models and make a lot of money. So they plotted and planned every day as to how they could get there.

The village where they lived was near a wide river that formed the boundary of the country and Busi often spent her Saturday afternoons helping her mother wash the family’s clothes in the water. The river only ran strongly when there had been good rains up country but for several years there not been any significant rainy seasons. The big pools were all that were left, but the rainy season was due and good downpours were predicted.

One Saturday while helping her mother with the wash, Busi had noticed a dog belonging to the chief of her village run across the wide riverbed from rock to rock and then return. She thought about this and lost no time in finding Simelo to tell her of her ideas. Returning to the village with the clothes that had dried in the sun, Busi outlined her plan. They could get up very early on the pretence of going to school and then, out of sight of anyone who might be watching, could step across the rocks and so cross over the border, just as the dog had done.

They met several times and worked on their plan, deciding exactly where they would be hidden from view, and where they could cross. The girls would have to walk a fair distance from their village but in so doing, they could see whether anyone was following them before making the crossing. The girls were young and their heads were full of thoughts of the glamour they had heard about. If young girls in America could make such great names for themselves, they argued, there was no reason why they could not do likewise, given the opportunity that, they were convinced awaited them in the big cities.

They set the date for the last day of the school term, when it was unlikely they would be missed by their schoolmates, who would insist on accompanying them if they heard about the plan. They decided to tell their respective families that they would be staying with one another, after school had closed and so should be able to get quite a good distance away before being missed and an alarm set up. They planned to write home once they had settled.

The great day arrived, and the girls woke early, having slept fitfully because of their excitement. Carrying their school satchels and bags, packed with their best clothes and shoes, they set off. Busi’s mother had asked why she was packing her best dress but Busi had fobbed her off, telling her that they were to attend a cinema in the nearby town. Simelo’s mother had been away visiting her old grandmother, and her father and brothers had been asleep when she left. She had an anxious moment when her younger brother had started to get up to follow her, but he had then decided that his warm bed was far too comfortable and had, thankfully, gone back to sleep.

The girls met one-another at the fork of the road, one leading to school, and the other to the river, and, after a hurried glance around to see whether anyone was about and watching, they ran down to the river. Afraid that they might meet someone on the road they walked in the bush alongside it, ready to drop out of sight should anyone come. It was too early for many people to be out and they reached the proposed crossing point without any problems. Simelo suggested that they change out of their yellow school uniforms before crossing so they would not be noticed so easily, so they put on dark-coloured dresses that they had packed. Then they hid their school satchels behind some rocks.

Clouds had been gathering during the last few days, but had moved up to the north. The rains were due, but the sun shone brightly and the girls’ excitement knew no bounds as they proceeded to jump from rock to rock across the river. Busi had packed some buns and they were sure they could find water or even buy cool drinks when they got to the other side. When they got half-way across the river, Simelo noticed that the river appeared to be running faster than usual so they decided to stop on a small island in the middle of the river.

It was fortunate that they did so, as, after a very short time, the rocks they had crossed on were covered with water, and the river began to flow faster and faster. Even as they watched, they saw that they were completely surrounded by water and they were soon marooned with the water creeping higher and higher. They had to scramble to the highest point of the island, to where a big tree grew. The girls were surprised but, realising that it must have rained up-country, they were sure that it would soon subside and they could carry on crossing.

They sat on the top of the highest rock and waited. The sun grew stronger, as it climbed high into the sky and the girls were hot and hungry. They ate what they had and waited, chatting unconcernedly as they waited for the water to go down. They grew sleepy as the afternoon dragged on. The noise of the river rushing by seemed to grow louder and to their growing concern it seemed to be creeping higher and higher, until their feet were in the river and the only place of safety seemed to be up the tree.

They wedged their bags into the branches when the sun began its descent and the prospect of a night on the island occurred to them. What were they to do, no one knew of their whereabouts, and they had not passed anybody. When darkness fell, no one would be able to see them. For the first time Simelo, who was the elder, grew frightened.

“What shall we do, Busi?” she asked. “Should we swim back?”
Busi, who had been crying quietly, said in a strangled voice. “Simelo, I can’t swim, I never learned to, I will just drown”.

She sobbed, pushing her knuckles into her eyes as she watched the river rising. She scrambled up into the lower branches of the tree and persuaded Simelo to do likewise before the water got even higher. The girls clung onto the large branches next to each other, while Simelo took stock. She decided that she should swim back and get help, but when she told Busi, the girl began to panic at the thought of being left alone, and clung onto Simelo, imploring her not to go. Simelo watched with alarm, at the speed with which the water was flowing, as she saw branches being swept down. If she attempted to swim, there was a very real danger of being swept away or, more dangerously, being hit on the head with floating branches.

The moon came out, and the girls began to get thoroughly chilled, as they held onto the branches and watched the water swirling by. Their cases had disappeared, knocked down into the water by a passing tree trunk and they were wet and very frightened. Their eyes became tired and sore from the strain of keeping watch, but fear kept them alert as the night crept by. Then Simelo, who had moved into a more comfortable position in the fork of the tree, moved her hands and felt a slimy skin beneath one of them.

“A snake” she screamed “What am I going to do”
Busi shouted. “Hit it with a stick, before it gets to me, Hit it, Simelo, quickly!”

Simelo had got such a fright that she almost toppled into the water, in her effort to move away. Her hold loosened, and she swung backwards with her head touching the water, her body held only by her legs that she had twined rounds the branch. She hung there, too petrified to do anything else, and Busi reached down her hand, to help. The water was rushing past so fast that a small stick hit against her outstretched hand, nearly breaking it at the wrist. Then, as Simelo managed to swing upwards again, they saw the snake fall into the river, and they rested, panting with relief and exhaustion. Busi, who was now able to hold on with only her good hand, sobbed and sobbed, hysterically and unable to control her terror.

Simelo could do little more than cling onto the tree’s branch, while she shivered with shock and cold. Just then, the tree moved, and bent down towards the river. The girls screamed. The water had washed the earth away at the base, and there was only one root holding it in place. The girls screamed again, terrified that at any moment they would be plunged into the swirling waters, and so did not hear the sound of a motor.

They were concentrating on keeping their hold on the branches when a bright light was beamed on them from above. A helicopter was hovering above them and a man was shouting at them to keep calm. He tried to quieten the girls’ screams as he threw down a rope-ladder to them, but it caught up in the branches and the helicopter had to rise again. In so doing, the tree was pulled upwards. The girls were, by this time, beyond reasoning with and as the ladder swung loose again, the tree toppled down into the water, throwing both girls into the river. They were caught in the branches and Busi managed to surface, gasping and struggling as she tried to keep afloat, while Simelo was able to put her arm up, as the ladder came swinging back again. She caught it and then realised that a man was climbing down from the helicopter, coming to save them.

It was clear that Busi was too weak and terrified to be able to help herself, so Simelo, who had quietened down, directed the man over to where she was. Very soon both the man and Busi were being pulled up and into the safety of the big machine. Simelo had to wait, but no time was lost before she too, was hauled into the door of the helicopter, and they were flown to the safety of the bank of the river. There they were set down and given hot, sweet tea to drink. Then they were told of the alarm that had gone out, when police, who had been called in for the rescue, had found their belongings down-stream.

They went back to their homes, where they were severely reprimanded and it was several years before they left their village again.

The End.

SIMELO AND BUSI (A day to remember) by Angela Hurrell.
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