Pilgrims of Fortune

Derick Matsengarwodzi

“If you make a sound or move an inch, you are a dead man.”

Confused, I looked around me, then heavenwards, searching for the hostile speaker. Above, only thick, grey rain-bearing clouds gathered swiftly on that early humid April morning. The voice in my ear repeated: “Do exactly what I say and I will spare your life.”

The warning echoed a deathly caution. A warm dribble wormed down my pants. In a flash, faceless arms snaked around my neck from behind. I suddenly became paralysed with fear, unable to move. Now, like sheep to the slaughterhouse, I waited for my unknown fate. 

You are cornered, just act wisely for the sake of your life, I told myself. I could not retreat, the hands from behind blocked my way, squeezing my neck further. Before I could figure out anything, a shining okapi knife rested on my stomach, just below the belly button. Whenever I exhaled, the razor-sharp edge sank deeper. I stopped breathing. The okapi owner meant business, with a cap pulled down and a fresh deep scar on the cheek. 

Don’t be stupid. Your amateur martial arts will not save you, my instinct intervened. 

My prayer was, “I pray the knife does not penetrate me.” Instantly, the okapi owner’s hand sneaked into my left pocket, emerging with loose change. Not convinced by the initial yield, he targeted the second, fishing out my cell phone, with bank notes tucked inside the cover.

My silent request was unexpectedly answered. The other tormentor hurriedly loosened me from the choking grip. The robbery lasted a moment, but it seemed like a lifetime. One of the city hunters was a diminutive, skinny young man, barely in his twenties, who had skillfully emptied my possessions, accompanied by his heavily-built sidekick in a figure-hugging vest, with a network of tattoos running down his huge arms. The two quickly vanished into the nearby tavern to enjoy the loot. I was penniless yet alive. I wanted to cry. I needed to cry. I slumped to the pavement, discounting the heavy human traffic on a public holiday.

It was business as usual while the robbery unfolded. Why did nobody on the crowded street raise an alarm? After the mugging, it seemed as if a vital organ had been forcibly extracted from my body, leaving me desperately gasping for elusive air. I was alone in a crowded Bree street, in downtown Johannesburg, with nowhere to turn. 

I had felt this way before, when my father died in October 1991. I was 13 then. When he died, I wanted to follow him. Only the intervention of a close relative restrained me from plunging into the coffee-brown coffin, during the body viewing. With the prior information I gathered on the daring thieves, how did I stumble? Luckily for me, my passport and a diary housed in my boxer shorts had survived another robbery, the first one back in Harare. Now it was an Easter holiday. I pleaded that a Good Samaritan might appear, just like in a biblical parable. But everyone around me was too busy to care about a robbery victim, they didn’t want to get involved – this was an everyday occurrence. 

“Maybe he is drunk. They get drunk and then beg for assistance,” I overheard one passerby suggesting. 

“Homeless people are always a nuisance,” added another. 

“Watch where you are going, madman. You don’t own this roadway.” Someone shoved me. I fell but was caught in time, landing in huge fleshy arms that held me upright. That grip frightened me. “Not another robbery,” I cried out in despair. “Khululeka ndodana ngizokusiza. What is the matter with you?” a woman’s voice asked amiably in IsiZulu. After what had just occurred, I did not trust anyone. I tried to break free but the arms tightened; the owner was adamant. 

“Umfana wami. I am here to help you. I saw what happened earlier on,” the speaker added, lowering her voice to a whisper. 

“I am not the enemy here. Speak softly, I don’t want people to overhear us. How can I help you?” The word help was what I was looking for. 

“I need to call a friend for help but I don’t have money,” I said, words coming out hesitant at first. “I know why you are penniless. I can’t act when the police are silent. Do you have your friend’s number with you?” There was small comfort. I withdrew my diary, thumbing through the pages. 

She seized the booklet. “What is your friend’s name?” Her voice was filled with urgency. 

“Edward,” I mumbled. She slid her thick finger down the page. She read the list loudly. After the fourth name, she paused. 

“Yes, the number is zero, seven, seven…,” she mentioned, punching digits into a payphone. She placed the receiver on my ear. I ignored her piercing searching gaze. The phone was ringing. My heart was elated, yet the owner was reluctant to answer. Then the response. 

“Hello, how can I help you?” My mouth went dry. I did not know what to say, too embarrassed to ask for help from a friend I had not seen in a while.

“Hello,” the speaker said again. The lady pulled away the receiver from me and spoke on my behalf. 

“Your friend Derick has been robbed. He needs your urgent assistance,” she pushed the receiver back at me. 

“Now tell him where he can meet you, we don’t have all day long,” she instructed. 

“Can you go and wait for me at the Park Station? It is safer there and I will come meet you.” He ended the call, leaving me to speak to a deadline. 

“Okay Edy muface, I will do exactly that.” The conversation ended. I felt the urge to leap into the woman’s plump arms. I yearned for a hug, inside her busty bosom. 

“Thank you very much for helping me. I owe you my life.” 

“Go on and meet your friend. And be careful out there.” She waved me on as if to give me a confident kickstart.

*

Edward arrived at our rendezvous as promised. When I noticed him in a metallic blue Golf driving through the car park, I felt a sudden flow of hope and energy in my body. Since I last saw him, he now kept a thick beard and a potbelly, only kept in place by a small-size shirt, his eyes glancing through large-framed spectacles. When we first met in 1992 at Sandringham High School, we instantly became friends due to our shared interests in outdoor fishing life. Like a true friend, his first set of questions were predictable, breaking the ice with our popular school slang.

“We must go somewhere silent for a chat, there is a lot to catch up on,” he said pointedly. I was inside the car before he was finished. From the Park Station, he drove towards the city’s periphery. The crowds were thinned out. Shops gave way to residential homes. Nannies pushed toddlers in perambulators, sounding lullabies. They patiently persuaded them to take a nap. Moments later, Edward pulled the car in front of a secluded eatery, as patrons began flooding in for lunch. 

“Let’s go inside the restaurant,” he said as he killed the engine, switching the car alarm on, adding that, “You have to be careful about the security system around this place, carjacking is on the increase of late.” We both walked inside the restaurant. Sanitizer on freshly polished ceramic tiles bequeathed a refreshing welcome. Exotic tables, manned by divinely dressed waitrons were on standby.

“A table for two, sir,” one alert waitress suggested. Edward nodded. 

“We prefer the balcony.” She led us outside, pulling two chairs and we lazed ourselves, as Mandoza’s raspy voice filled the room.

“The usual sir,” the lady asked again. 

“Yes, the usual please and two Castle Lagers, please.” The lady disappeared to place the order, leaving us a chance to chat. 

“Your food will be ready in a few minutes. In the meantime, enjoy your drinks.” She left again. I unscrewed my beer, downing a generous swig. Edward glanced at me debatably. He supped his beer at a calculated rate. 

“Cheers, wanga warohwa neair lock, hey.” 

“Sorry, wanonoka muface, your cheers were a bit late. The mugging left me in a really bad shape. Thank you for coming to save me.” 

He sipped his beer again, contemplating his next comment. 

“That’s what friends are for, like we used to do in school, where we shared everything.” He waved away my thanks, dismissing it without a thought. 

The aroma of the steaming food was tempting, including the ready-made sadza, our popular food. With the lingering smell, my mind raced back to our H-shaped school dining hall, sitting at our table, 12 hungry students staring at two aluminium dishes of sadza and beans, waiting impatiently for the prefects to pray for us to commence serving. But now, I could not wait for any command. 

“You ate like two men,” he commented with a hearty laugh. I was not irritated though. I knew it was a playful reference, just like the old days.

The meal was strangely comforting. Edward stretched his fisted hand towards me. I responded, expecting a handshake. Then he placed rolled notes into my palm, squeezing my hand intently.

“This money will assist you for a while. I will call you later.” After the meal, he later dropped me off at the MTN Noord taxi rank, where I was heading to visit Philemon for the Easter holidays. 

“Welcome to Johannesburg,” he hooted. I waved back. I squeezed into an idling taxi. I had to be at Philemon’s residence before the partying friends got wasted. It was Easter and I knew they were already drinking.

*

Seven decades ago, in the 40s, when life in the rural areas of Wedza became unbearable, with limited opportunities, especially for uneducated rural folks, migrating to South Africa was the only option. In that era, the gold mines, where many agile youths were relocating to, also lured Lewis, my paternal grandfather. At a tender age, he bade farewell to his mother to trek down to the dicey South African mine shafts, often toiling for a dime. As the last born, his mother reluctantly blessed his unplanned exit, before departing with his group of friends. According to his uncontested tale, which he often recited to anyone who cared to listen, the journey was for the battle hardy.

“On our first day, we cycled to get to Salisbury, the capital city then. In the jungle, we encountered the big five animals. Not once. At night we slept strapped to trees. Along the way, some friends perished, they were killed by wild animals, but we could not bury them accordingly,” he recounted. “Still, we pushed forward, despite the evident drawbacks. We only knew it was daytime when the sun appeared, but unaware of the exact dates and location. Determination pushed us on, but few finally reached the Promised Land.”

Inside Johannesburg, there was a sudden burst of fast city life. To fit in with ease, they quickly adopted the fashion trends, language and even culture. The addictive trumpet artistry of Hugh Masekela and the feel of Johannesburg as the peak extractive gold mining centre, the music of the time, the boxing halls, the hostels, untamed beer orgies inside the shebeens, the gangster and brutality under apartheid, the influx of so many migrants desperate for work from all over southern Africa. The majority of migrants toiled in mines, while the war raged on. My grandpa was attracted to the boxing ring through Sugar Ray Robinson’s exploits. 

Then, in May 1950, Vic Toweel, aged 23, became the first South African bantamweight champion. This feat reignited my grandfather’s ability to throw ferocious punches, balanced footwork, retreating, and pouncing on his opponent as a herd boy. To show his commitment, a lion tattoo was drawn on his forearm, showcasing his bravery. For mineworkers like him, boxing remained the only available and most affordable sport, the foremost entertainment in township halls. Again, it was a form of defiance and defence against the repressive colonial system. 

Once inside the boxing ring, it accorded him the comfort of missing his mother and country, later on travelling to Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia to fulfil scheduled bouts. Around that time, when his profession and fame was peaking, he met a novice Zulu girl, still in her teens. It was love at first fight rather than sight. She prized his boxing, he adored her understanding of the sport. Though the family did not accept him as a son-in-law, because of his foreign origins, the two had their first baby boy, my father, Peter, born in 1951. When my father was around six, the young family visited Rhodesia.

“You have to leave your children with me, so that I can have someone to help me around this place,” my great-grandmother pleaded. 

Despite the protests from both parents, my father remained as suggested, while the rest of the family returned. For my father, that was the last time he saw his mother and sister, who was deemed too young to stay. Alone, plucked from the comfort of his birthplace and parents’ upkeep, Father quickly adjusted to village life, among his new people. In the forest, with his two loyal dogs, he became a notable hunter and fisherman, attributes that I later adopted. When he started school, he had to acquire a local birth certificate.

Back in Johannesburg, Gandfather’s boxing fame was always associated with a dissolute lifestyle, more money, beautiful women, eventually leading to a breakdown in his marriage. Over the years, heavy boxing caused brain damage. Back home, my father waited for his return, but after a long absence, his family concluded he was long dead. Out of nowhere, when everyone had nearly forgotten about him, Grandfather finally pitched up, almost in a vegetative state, having lost his entire fortune and family. Only my father welcomed him home. In the village, they called him muJubheki, the one who had spent his agile years in Johannesburg, only to reappear bankrupt. 

When my father eventually died at age 40, he only had a blurred memory of his mother, this bothered him to death, knowing she was out there, but could not reach out. When asked about Grandma’s whereabouts, Grandpa always maintained that he had lost every contact, since it had been a while. His fears were real, he dreaded losing my father, the only son, if he decided to search for his mother. Over the years, with Grandpa’s fading memory, any prospects of a family reunion just faded away, until his death in 2005, carrying away all the secrets with him. 

*

At birth, I inherited the majority of my grandfather’s notoriety and storytelling abilities. If I could, I would have vetoed the bad habits. In my childhood, I recall clearly exhibiting most of his rebel genes. Amongst my peers, sometimes outside, I boxed like a lion. When trapped, or sensed I was losing the battle, I darted like a cheetah. In short, I was his mirror image, family members even noted. Each time my grandfather came home, I would pester him to tell us about his stint in Johannesburg. 

“I was one of the top fighters during my day and I earned a lot of fame and women for that. During my days, I won a lot of friends and enemies in and outside the boxing ring,” he would say in his distinct stammer while flinging some tame jabs. Despite the incoherence in time and location, I always listened to his tales with a keen interest.

Sometimes I would ask: “Grandpa, can you show us your muscles?” Like an amateur bodybuilder, he would excitedly tense his ageing biceps and triceps, much to our delight.

Years later, still recalling my grandfather’s tales, the prevailing political uncertainty forced me to retrace his journey to Johannesburg. In his final days, Robert Mugabe, the former president had become a monster, relegating the likes of Mobutu Seseko and Milton Obote into saints. After three decades in power, Zimbabwe’s ageing leader was positioning himself to contest in the 2008 presidential elections. As Mugabe campaigned, Harare’s hyperinflation hit a record 79,600,000,000 percent. Prices doubled every hour. Most basic foodstuffs were running out, while industries closed daily. 

At the peak of the mayhem, the nation’s working class had become redundant, with the unemployment rate going over 90 percent. Prices doubled every hour. Food was scarce – it disappeared rapidly from shelves as soon as it was loaded, if ever it happened. Fasting overlapped to intercourse between spouses, rendering it a taboo. The urge to perform was exhausted by hunting for elusive basic commodities. Diseases such as cholera were looming, due to lack of service delivery. Security forces acquired the lion’s share of scarce basics since they controlled queues where basics were sold. Even when off duty, they dressed up to divert foodstuff onto the black market for a premium. 

Mugabe, the man we had idolised, a father figure, delivering eloquent, flowing speeches had changed the plot. And as such, men, being naturally enduring mortals each instance when resources fail in one place, instinctively seek better opportunities elsewhere. It matters less how prolonged or disgraceful the road to salvation might be – as long as their desires are satisfied. The introduction of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in 2002 threatened the existence of media houses and journalists. For an aspiring journalist like me, it felt like there was no future in Zimbabwe. A year earlier, I was in Beira, Mozambique, but due to communication barriers in Portuguese, I returned home after three months, having worked briefly at the port of Beira, offloading ship cargo.

*

At the start of 2008, Thomas, a boyhood friend, convinced me to leave the country. Citizens were leaving in their droves, he said. Like them, Thomas wanted a new start. With an accounting qualification, he could only get work as a shop cashier. We had been friends since 1985 in school, so we valued each other’s opinions and I decided to follow him. But first, we had to get passports, followed by visas for South Africa, processed in Harare. The process took a long time because of the number of people trying to leave the country. For the Visa, an uncle residing there wrote an invitational letter, after paying a redeemable R2,000 fee, issued within a week.

In the meantime, I bid farewell to my young family, destined to the unknown. By now, joy had turned to tears, considering the unpredictable future in my absence. After only four years together, we were being separated. I had met her four years earlier, while training as a journalist, hoping to settle down after my graduation, but the closure of media houses meant limited opportunities. My firstborn, Lizzy, was nearly four. Munashe, the second, was still a toddler in diapers, learning to pronounce daddy. We were still bonding, yet I was exiting in a haste. They were too young to understand what was going on, but my mother offered words of comfort.

“Don’t worry, your father will come back soon after securing a job to fend for the family.” 

Having married at only 17, my mother stayed in Wedza village, away from father because wives were not allowed in town under the colonial setup. On paydays, usually Fridays, Father would visit her in the village, returning to work on a Monday.

For the trip, I secured the cheapest bus ticket. My uncle could only write the letter, but he said there was no extra room to accommodate me. An extra mouth to feed would be an expense for him and his new wife. Besides my uncle, I only knew Philemon and Edward, and I had to find employment or another way to get by, without offers or references. 

*

On arrival at Philemon’s lodgings, the crowd of largely locals was slowly swelling up and the majority were already looking tipsy, dancing swiftly to the Kwaito beat. Philemon saw me first from a distance and paced towards me, with his Amstel in hand. 

“Wanga urikupi wechidhaka, it’s already in the afternoon, we have been waiting for you and getting worried. Your phone is offline?” 

I wanted to respond, but the noise and merrymaking was overpowering. Instead, another friend offered me a beer, saving me from further interrogation. 

“Bra, have a beer, there is no time to talk, at least you are here, you have fulfilled your promise. Let’s party.”

With that comment, I immersed myself deep inside the growing crowd, drinking more, trying hard to shake off the mugging in Johannesburg. With my friends around, nothing could harm or defeat us. Yes, we were far away from home, but our fighting spirit kept us going; after all, there is safety in numbers. 

*

On a wintery, blustery sundown, seven men closely hugged a smothering fire, plunged in a lingering chat, their heads bowed down, hands spread out towards the flames. Dagga, pole and grass thatched huts, like alert nighttime guards, stood erect in the distance, young children were blaring, deeply engaged in different pastime games. Women of young ages were toiling on cooking clay spots dotted around their respective cooking fires, closely monitored by their elders. Beside each man was a pointed spear, resting on the side, alongside colossal knobkerries, the size of an infant’s head. The group of men all occupied wooden stools in a perfect semi-circle, leaving a leeway for the smoke to escape freely.

The eighth man, Matsengarwodzi, frail-looking, of slight build, with distinct wrinkles on his face, the father, lay still resting on a wooden headrest, occasionally rising to sip a mixture of roots and leaves from a calabash, completely covered in a leopard skin blanket. As per the norm, after work, he gathered around a fire, the dare in Shona, surrounded by his sons teaching them about their family history, origins, sacred places, norms and culture. Without formal education, this was a very important meeting place for orally passing stories from one generation to the other, to ensure the history remained in the family. Evening was fast approaching, almost past their usual mealtime.

Magedhe, or Lewis, the youngest of them all, my grandfather, stooped down on all limbs, blowing profusely to revive the dying embers, repeatedly poking it with the tip of his knobkerrie. He puffed and huffed on the fire, his eyes turned watery from the smoke, then the fireplace suddenly burst into lively flames, lightening the area. Jerking to his feet, he rubbed his eyes vigorously, with his fisted hands, igniting tears down his plump cheeks, then his sprouting beard, and he wiped the soot from his clothes.

“Hurry up Magedhe, you are burning the maize, quick, stir it before it turns into charcoal. We don’t want to lose our snack to these ravaging flames. These women are delaying bringing our food and I am getting restless and very hungry now. It seems like I last ate a week ago.” When the eldest of the siblings, Jekanyika, yelled the instruction, irately massaging his big belly, Magedhe seized a dry stick and obediently stirred the contents inside the half-broken clay pot. He dispensed a jet of water, scattering a pinch of salt, and continued mixing nonstop. Like a determined cook, he diligently repeated the task, making sure he did as he was directed. Content with his ongoing task, he held the improvised pan with both hands, ejecting it from the fire and placing it next to his elder brother’s feet. Without wasting time, Jekanyika dipped his huge left palm, scooping a handful of the roasted maize and offloaded the steaming maize into his waiting, salivating mouth and chewed impatiently.

“My brother, Magedhe, you are the best cook in the whole area of Wedza in roasting maize, turning it into a golden brown colour. You can win any cooking contest in the world, even against women. This is what I call the golden-brown maize.”

There was a hearty laughter from the group at the wayward suggestions, coming from Jekanyika, known for his unrivalled appetite. The third brother, Mashatise, commented, igniting further glee.

“Indeed, he is the best cook and possibly beyond our village.”

The six men greedily feasted on the maize, while another brother worked steadfastly on a reddened iron plate, craftily shaping an axe. Matsengarwodzi cleared his throat and began to speak.

“My sons, listen to me very carefully. Before I join my ancestors, you need to know the exact history of your forefathers and what really happened, so that your children will know the truth.”

After he spoke, Matsengarwodzi slowly raised his head from the blanket, and cleared his throat, taking a sip of water from a calabash by his side. “Our family roots here in Wedza are traced right back to Charamukwa Choto, who had many other names, including Nyahuye and Svosve, a great chief. Nyika yaCharamukwa yaitangira Marondera kusvika kuno kuWedza, kwaGoto, before it was forcibly taken by the white settlers. As a polygamist, he had four wives and many children.”

The old man sluggishly shifted his frail frame to find a more comfortable posture and resume his storytelling resting on his elbows.

“These four wives had many sons and girls, although there were disagreements on who was the oldest, it has been agreed that, both Makwarimba and Chigodora were of the same age, born on the same day. Another wife, Chimbuya gave birth to Chikunguru, Chibonore, my father and Kuwandikira. Although there were other children born, these are the only ones who survived to adulthood. Choto was our original clan name, or surname, used by everyone back then.”

“So, you mean if our forefather is Choto, sei tiine mazita akasiyana-siyana, yet we are all blood relatives?” Chatinhira, one of the brothers, interrupted his father.

“Imbomira kani iwe Chatinhira,” Jekanyika cut off his brother, “We need to hear all the details from Soko, who was there before us.”

When everyone had quieted, the old man resumed. “The other elder children had differences with their father, Charamukwa, accusing him of favouring Chimbuya, one of his wives and her children. Some of his elder sons tied him to a tree, seeking to kill him, but he was rescued by other sons and fled to Masvingo, where one of his wives, a chief’s daughter came from, taking with him Chikunguru and Chibonore, while Kuwandikira was born in Masvingo, away from home.”

With the night getting colder, the old man quivered, and his sons moved him closer to the fire to get warm and continue the storytelling. “The elder sons followed their father to Masvingo to ask for forgiveness, but Charamukwa’s host thought they wanted to kill their father and he killed them instead. Charamukwa later returned home, carrying one of his son’s head and buried him in one of the mountains, and he was the first there. For that reason, these elderly sons and their families could not inherit the chieftainship, and only Chimbuya’s children were entitled to rotate the Nyahuye, Svosve chieftainship.” 

“Maintaining and safeguarding the chieftainship was not easy, and many battles were fought against the Ndebele, white settlers and other tribes. Chramukwa and his sons were great warriors, known for their ability to fight and repel the enemy. The Wedza mountain was a sacred place, endowed with vast minerals, including iron and there were many wars that were fought there against other tribes. It is said that whenever Chikunguru was pierced by a sharp spear, he would not die, while Chibonore, covered in tree bark for the war, would flee from the enemy, and Kuwandikira would just disappear from the enemy, or turn into different objects, or person to confuse the enemy, earning his name.”

After speaking for a while, the old man suddenly stopped. With the help of his two sons, the old man leaned over to the calabash, tilting his head to drain its contents.

“When the white people, vasina mabvi, forcibly took our country using their military might, I was very young, but I saw everything with my own eyes. Later on, Chibonore, my father, married two wives, giving birth to four sons, and I am the second born. Later on, as these children grew, some assumed new surnames, mainly names of their fathers or grandfathers, that’s why we have different surnames, but we are one, big family.”

From the blind side, three young girls advanced towards the fireplace with calculated caution, each with a basket full of wooden plates, packed with food, stopping a few paces from the three nattering men who overlooked the young women approaching. The three girls prudently placed their wooden plates on the ground, cupped their hands, kneeling, and started clapping, first slowly, then deliberately increasing the tempo in harmony, soon drawing the attention of the men.

Jekanyika heard the clapping first and stood up to locate the whereabouts of the visitors. After he was satisfied, he instructed his young brothers. “The girls are here with the food. Go and collect, I am hungry. I don’t know about the rest of you.”

With his large hands, Jekanyika offloaded the wooden basins before the basket even hit the ground, inspecting the contents, one by one. He selected a plate with the largest portion, placing one next to his father and the other one beside his big feet. At the sight of food, he became excited, and hungrily ate large morsels in a wild speed, some food sticking to his shaggy beard. In no time, his plate was almost sparkling clean, not satisfied, he licked his fingers.

Until his death, Matsengarwodzi, my great-grandfather occupied a substantial portion of Wedza up to Chinei, where his unmarked grave lies to this day.

*

As the sun began to creep out in the Zambesia valley, it meant the beginning of another day’s hard work, as men loaded their fishing nets, at the same time women prepared food, mostly dried meat, which lasted longer in the bush. One of the fishermen was Ngetani, a young tall, slim man of medium age, light in complexion. Boys from the village assisted the elderly to pack their fishing gear, ready for escapades that could possibly last for days, or even weeks. In deep, calculated silence, they worked hand-in-hand to get ready before the sun was up.

“Ngetani, just make sure the boys have packed all the gear, food and all we need for our journey.”

“Okay, baba, I have checked and we are ready to go.”

In a single file, the agile men in front, followed by the elderly, meandered along the narrow footpaths towards the great Zambezi river, joining other groups on their way to their own usual fishing points. For hours they walked uninterrupted, speaking, sharing rolled and homemade brew, as they inched closer to their destination. Towards midday, they reached a thicket of mirambe, (baobab trees in Sena) and started to unpack their gear. They worked together, in the hope of laying their nets early the next day.

“Tonight, tireke (let us) set up our camp here and the following morning we start off early in the morning to lay our nets. You can untie the ng’ombe and let them graze around here. For now, we prepare our dinner and take a rest, so that we are ready the following morning.”

The young men set up the fireplace and chatted in groups. “Ngetani, muandinhenga (you deceived me) that you were just going to Rhodesia for a short while and coming back home. There was total silence, only the sound of trumpeting elephants, probably drinking in the Zambezi River and the annoying, persistent shriek of whining mosquitoes, seeking an easy target.

“Tawira (answer) me Ngetani, ualonga nji (what do you say)? The old man was clearly agitated. On the second question, Ngetani, my grandfather, gathered his confidence and responded to his father.

“Actually, I have something that I wanted to tell you about.”

Ngetani briefly went silent to inspect his father’s reaction, before he continued. “I managed to get a permanent and better-paying job as a cook, back in Rhodesia, and my employer, a white man, thinks I must move there permanently.”

Known for his fiery character, Ngetani’s father was subdued by this statement, and could only shake his head in disbelief, as he wiped his moist cheeks with the back of his hand, then he spoke, this time in a high pitched tone.

“You see this mataka (earth), feel it because your umbilical cord is buried here and you belong here. I want you and your children to remain here and carry on with our Sena culture and traditions, since you are the last born, you have to carry our name forward.”

“But I have done my best to marry two women, already I have three children and the third one is coming anytime soon. I take care of my children and wives to the best of my ability, including yourself and will keep coming home each time I get a chance.”

Towards midnight, when hyenas were singing their hunting callouts choruses, the group finally retired to bed. Before sunrise, they left to cast their nets, repeating the same task for a week, and returned to their base to dry the fish, to preserve them. Convinced with their catch, the fishermen left for home.

“The child will be due anytime from now, and I hope it will be a girl,” a pint-sized woman, fair skin colour, my grandmother, Ngetani’s first wife told her husband, gently palming her protruding stomach, in circular motions, soon after an evening meal.

“I hope you are taking your herbs so that the delivery will not be complicated. Please follow what the older women say, they know what is best for you and the child.”

“This is my third child, and by now I know what is required, I am not new to this anymore.”

“I know, but just to make sure the child and yourself are safe, please follow exactly what you are told, because I will not be around, I will be leaving tomorrow for Rhodesia, but as soon as the child is delivered, I will ask for leave to come and see you.”

*

Back at work, in one of the leafy suburbs of Salisbury, for two consecutive nights, Ngetani could not sleep, waking up at night and sitting on his bed, listening to the German shepherd barking outside, chasing away stray cats inside the yard. Whenever he closed his eyes, a group of people gathered around him, singing grave songs, all wearing black clothes. After a few days, inside a community beer hall, their voices subdued by the heavy beat of Zambian Kanindo music from the jukebox, he shared his dream with a friend.

“Maybe, you are just too stressed about your unborn child, wife and family, everything will be fine.”

As his friend had suggested, the following week, he received some good news from someone coming from Zambesia.

“They are waiting for you, as the father, to name the new baby girl child.”

Filled with excitement about the fourth child, he approached his employer seeking some days off to visit home, but he was refused. That night, Ngetani, still clad in his kitchen whites, sat on his single spiral bed, inside the one-roomed servant quarters detached from the main house lit by a paraffin light, to write a letter home; next to his bed was a small stereo broadcasting the daily news in the vernacular.

“Breaking news: The Kariba dam wall that was under construction has just collapsed, and people and animals living around the river are in danger due to the floods. Experts say that people living down the river, in Rhodesia and Mozambique, will be adversely affected…”

As soon as he heard the name Mozambique, the thought of his family, the village and livestock, and the previous troubling dream filled his mind. The next day, with the blessing of his employer, he left for home, his boss telling him to “bring his family to a safe place.”

*

On arrival at his former homestead, he could barely recognise the area he once called home, after the marauding floods, the village was completely flattened, the planted fields washed away, grazing lands uprooted, homesteads destroyed, and livestock marooned with water, some eroded towards the ocean. The weak and frail could not be saved in time, many were carried alive, screaming on top of their voices for help that never came.

“When it all happened, we were all fast asleep,” my grandmother recalled, “It was towards midnight, when I heard a deafening sound from a distance, at first, I thought it was the rain, but when it got near, I could hear it was the roaring river the height of our homes carting big logs, dead animals and debris. The only thing I thought of was the children, which I grabbed and dashed outside, leaving everything else behind.”

The newly born child, Elizabeth Nyamadipa, saved from the marauding Zambezi floods, was my mother, born the same year the Kariba dam completely submerged their village, in 1958, leaving them scavenging for wild fruits, honey and any available assistance from other spared villages. Although some relatives wanted her to be given a Sena name, my grandfather insisted it was befitting, six years after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in England, and the heavy influence from the white community where he worked in Rhodesia. In the aftermath, the villagers started to rebuild their homes, nursing the injured, burying the dead, living through diarrheal diseases, and tabulating their losses, while some relocated to safer places, leaving their former ancestral land.

A few years after the floods, Ngetani, who had previously entertained the idea of moving to an area closer to Rhodesia, his workplace, immediately reignited the idea. And with the Mozambican war that broke later in 1964, he was convinced it was the right moment to move, and possibly relocate to his home purchased in Salisbury, Highfield, in 1963. After some discussions with his father, he finally relocated to Massara, an area near the Mukumbura border, following his friend, however, my mother and her three elderly siblings were taken to Salisbury to start a new life and enrol at new schools, far away from the mayhem, abductions and killings that came with the war to liberate the country from Portuguese settlers. In Rhodesia, they later acquired birth certificates, clearly demarcating their foreign origins, affirming them as aliens.

*

After many years, with an infrequent letter, or little feedback at all to his family and elderly mother, Lewis returned home unexpectedly. On arrival, a surprise for many, he was accompanied by his new family, his wife, my grandmother, Peter, my father and his little sister, all born in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the village, the news of visitors, especially those from a foreign country spread rapidly from house to house. Inquisitive locals, even abandoned their field chores to meet the new bride in person, it only took a few minutes for the villagers, both young and old to fill up the yard, humming and beating the skin drum, in appreciation of the new bride.

“Muroora, tauya naye nemagumbeze,” they sang joyously. 

The bride responded shyly after Lewis translated the song, seated with her flowing, long hair and tight-fitting jeans and high winter boots, probably a first in the village. Later that day, the family arranged an impromptu feast, consisting of goat meat, rice, clear beer and bottles of Bols brandy, brought from South Africa, to liven the event and feed the swelling number of uninvited guests. For some, it was a feast to welcome their ‘lost’ son who had now returned to his family. My great-grandmother, now a lonely, frail widow, walking with the aid of a stick for all her needs, further inflicted by arthritis, pleaded with Lewis to leave Peter behind instead, while he returned to South Africa to continue boxing.

“I am glad you could make it back home in one piece and with a beautiful family to come and see me before I join my ancestors.”

All the time, Lewis’s wife was just nodding, giggling uncomfortably, unaware that the fate of his son was under discussion, except for a few greetings that she had grasped. After the rest of the villagers left, except for a few close relatives lingering for leftover food, and more gossip, Grandmother finally seized the time to speak her heart. “Sawubona mama, I am very glad to finally meet you, after all that I heard from your son back in Johannesburg.”

“Yebo, sawubona,” she responded in the few IsiZulu words she had mastered.

“I am glad to see you too. I have been waiting for a long time. Now I can finally die in peace.”

The conversation soon shifted to their lives in Johannesburg, the ongoing apartheid, and when they were coming back home. On this one, Lewis was quick to respond.

“I will go back and work for a while and come back for good, there are urgent things that I need to attend to.” Again, the statement was followed by total silence, as everyone contemplated the next move.

“Kana iwe waenda, then leave the children behind to live with their people and help me around here, fetching water and herding cattle.” As the debate continued, the three finally agreed for Peter to remain, since he was older and could easily cope with the demands of village life. On that note, Peter’s destination was sealed, his place in the village was created and availed. The visit lasted a few weeks and finally bade farewell to the visitors.

In Wedza, although Peter enjoyed a lot of family support from the onset, alone he had to quickly adapt to the daily demands, unyielding in the face of adversity and bullying from other boys of his age. At home, he quickly learned Shona, a language remotely related to IsiZulu that he was used to in Johannesburg. For him, it was a race against time, trying to fit in and catch up with the rest of the villagers.

“Here we call our staple food sadza and not papa, this is not South Africa, you are now back home, with your own people,” his peers always reminded him. As a new arrival, he constantly fought for respect and a place, within the already existing pecking order. On his first day in the paddocks, they went to water their livestock, and one of the older boys made two heaps of sand.

“You two boys, these are your mother’s breasts and whoever destroyed them both, will be the winner and the other one a coward.”

After his challenger destroyed the piles of sand, calling him a mubvakure, a foreigner, his anger shot – after his absent mother was defiled and he immediately clenched his fists and charged towards the opponent. When the other boy anticipated him to throw a punch, he targeted his feet, sending him tumbling to the ground, and before he hit the ground, he had received multiple blows, discharging a jet of blood from his nose. Peter only retreated when elders from a nearby field charged at them and they scattered all over.

Days like these were common in his early life, and he had to toughen up to make it through. The nearest school, Mukondwa, was nearly eight kilometres away; Peter woke before sunup to prepare for the day, warming water to bath, before a quick breakfast of yesterday’s meal, or boiled mealies, and grabbed his plastic carrier bag of books, dashing into the paths barefoot towards the school. Along the way, he joined other students, together they jogged, marching on the wet soil, afraid of the punishment that awaited them if they were late.

Towards the early 70s, as the colonial government intensified its grip on power, the urge to fight for the liberation of the country increased. Some of our immediate family members left the country for military training with ZANU or ZIPRA. At the same time, Peter left Wedza for Salisbury in search of work and stayed with his married cousin in a four-room house in Highfield. When he left, he left behind great resourcefulness, a deeper connection to the landscape and a close-knit community. Behind him was a rich story-telling culture, mbira music, Shona sculptures in soapstone and serpentine, art, dance, and a deep spirituality that gave people the strength to endure.

Armed with his little education, and no work experience, Peter was recruited at a milling company as a general labourer, loading and unloading 50kg bags of feed and food. He persisted in searching for a job in the nearby industrial site; looking for a job finally paid off. On paydays, especially Fridays, he left for the village. Over a long period, he became friends with some senior white managers, joining the first aid department, designated to attend injured personnel at the milling plant. From being a first aider, he gained the confidence of the other senior staff members and periodically got an opportunity to work within the sales department, using his love for people in interacting with customers.

*

Lizzie and Peter met and fell in love in Highfield, a township celebrated for sheltering famous freedom fighters, sports personalities, and indigenous businessmen. Lizzie was residing in Old Canaan, another section of the township. In earlier images, taken in the 70s, she sported an elegant Afro style, a huge influence for black women of the 60s era, heavily influenced by singers such as Tina Turner. After repeated encounters at the shopping centre, Peter pestered her for a chat, and he finally got the chance. 

“My name is Peter Matsengarwodzi, and I come from Wedza.”

“Are you Peter or Pedro, because in Mozambique, we call you Pedro.”

“Mozambique, are you from that part of the world?”

“Yes, I am. Do you have a problem with that?”

“No, not at all. I was also born in South Africa, but I came here at a young age.”

“So, you are South African. I am really surprised, we have a lot in common. Can I call you Pedro instead of Peter?”

“Only if you allow me to call you Elizabeth, my Queen.” 

They both laughed.

From that revealing encounter, connecting their trying and almost similar family backgrounds, the two became an inseparable couple, going for weekend outings to the park together hand-in-hand, community film shows at Cecil Jennings Hall, and football matches at Gwanzura stadium, a sporting facility built by the Gwanzura brothers in the 60s to defy colonial restrictions on access to sporting infrastructure for black Africans. Six years Peter’s junior, their love was motivated by their foreign lineage, and later brought to Rhodesia by their parents to settle as complete strangers.

The influx of foreigners into the country, using porous borders, mainly from the federation states of Malawi and Zambia and from Mozambique did not go down well with some local people, who saw them as a threat to the little available resources, availed to the black majority by the white government. As the population of foreigners multiplied, they became a subject of ridicule, name-calling given belittling names such as Mabvakure, Mabhurandaya, a corrupted name for Blantyre, or Mabwidi, all with similar meanings to Makwerekwere. The majority were undocumented immigrants, originating from foreign nations for a better life. 

Within some sections of African families, it was largely considered an inexcusable taboo and bad omen to marry or get married to a foreign national at that time, who were considered to be second-class citizens, because of their origins and belief that it attracted a foreign blood that would contaminate one’s family. Peter, already regarded as a foreigner due to his birth in South Africa, being romantically involved with Lizzie was not far-fetched for him. To avoid some of the widespread ridicule, foreigners engaged in intermarriages, and to date, many relatives from my mother’s side are originally from Malawi, Mozambique, or Zambia. The dating, later resulted in a marriage, later in 1974, and moving on to their own one-roomed lodging. 

*

Lizzie could have ceased to exist even before my birth, this was in 1976, the same year the liberation war peaked, as the quest for emancipation intensified. By now she had a son, Desmond, my eldest brother, born in 1975. The previous year, Peter’s contract at the milling company was terminated, which meant that life in the city was no longer affordable. That late Friday afternoon, his last day at work, he sluggishly strolled home, a bag containing his work suit slung over his left shoulder. As he left the industrial site, his safety boots stomped the bare, dry ground then the wind amply lifted the loose, red earth up his knees. The sallow rays from the peeping, setting sun; the rusty earth and the wafting wind, all formed a blinding ash that blighted his vision and also stuffed his nostrils. He wiped a chain of dribble watery mucus with a cloth, the balance caking off within and he slowly snaked his hand into his pocket emerging with a Kingsgate 30-cigarette pack.

He flipped the cover revealing a half-smoked cigarette, digging out the stub with his twin centre fingers then forsaking the empty carton. With an impulsive manoeuvre, he snapped off the blackened upper crust of the stub, levelling it with the red brand engravings. With both hands cupped to shield off the blowing wind, he struck a light, followed by heavy puffs then smoke through all his breathing outlets. Contently, he whistled softly an Elvis Presley harmony: In The Ghetto, now that his destination was in sight.

As the snow flies

On a cold and grey Chicago mornin’

A poor little baby child is born

In the ghetto

And his mama cries

‘Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need

It’s another hungry mouth to feed

In the ghetto

Once again, before he got home, he checked a small elongated khaki envelope inside his back pocket, containing his wages, then resumed whistling. The sun would soon wipe its bright trails in the ghetto, but at the same time, life inside the shebeens was still yet to mature. Men in grimed overalls sneaked into beer outlets for a Friday drinking binge as the blurring loud music lured habitual patrons. Towards a one-roomed lodging, tucked at the back, he squeezed through closely-knitted buildings to get through and pushed open a wooden panel.

“Ko, maswera sei?” a female voice greeted him as he entered.

“Ndaswera, maswera sei, my Queen?” Peter lurched himself on the only wooden stool in the room, peeled off his boots and discarded them behind the see-through door.

“You are early today. I did not expect you this early.” Lizzie launched her investigation.

“I am okay, it’s only that my contract at work has been terminated. Today was my last day at work,” he pronounced with his head bowed in defeat.

Without a consistent source of income for their regular upkeep, sacrifices were taken. The next day, a Saturday, Lizzie packed her few chattels and left for Wedza with her toddler securely wrapped on her back, Peter was to remain in the city alone searching for other opportunities.

In the village, she soon settled with the help of relatives, but the major test was the raging war. Like many in the village, her daily routine included fetching water from the well, cleaning, and regular field chores. In the afternoon she collected firewood and cooked, and in her spare time, she mingled and plaited hair with friends and relatives, some of them who later stayed with us in the city. Whenever resources permitted, Peter visited during weekends, carrying food provisions to last them until his next stopover. Lizzie’s personal encounter with the war came one afternoon when she ventured into the forest with other village women to collect firewood.

As a survival rule, she was not supposed to take her son out of her sight because of the evidently lurking threats. But on that day, while they gathered firewood, Desmond wandered off with other kids, by then he was still learning to utter his first elementary words, but when she heard him shouting excitedly, pointing to the sky and muttering, she froze.

“Mama, look at those soldiers inside the helicopter.”

By the time she noticed the helicopter, it was too late to take cover, she just stood there, trembling, frightened by this rare sighting. To her disbelief, the chopper momentarily hovered above them, then soared past without a word or firing a single bullet.

*

Back in the city, Peter toiled in day and night shifts, with no significant breaks, determined to please his employer, seeking to get reunited with his young family one day, his visits to the village were however perpetual. Towards independence, Peter secured a permanent job helped by his persistent, hard work and willingness to learn and go the extra mile. In 1978, the colonial government established Chitungwiza, a dormitory town, 25 km south of Harare, after the merger of three African townships of Seke, Zengeza and St Mary’s, making it the youngest, but fastest-growing town in the country. That same year, on a simmering October afternoon, I was born in St Mary’s clinic. For nine months, Lizzie had highly anticipated and prayed for a girl child, but it was not to be.

“In your early days, you suffered regular tummy complications and I spent more time at the local clinic to find a lasting cure,” Lizzie later said. “Every time you ate sugary stuff you had severe stomach problems. I was always taking you to the clinic for observations.”

For that reason, I spent my early years on various medications and hospitalisation. At one time my body mass increased, while my mother thought I was gaining weight, but the shocking reality was revealed by a nurse during her regular clinical visits.

“Your child’s body is swelling and he needs urgent medical attention.” My recovery was slow, and I became the sickling in our family of four until a later age.

In 1982, a year after the birth of her third son, Lizzie commenced a secretarial course, a move heavily criticised by her shell-shocked friends, since it was highly unacceptable to work and abandon the housewife title, taking care of children, household chores, bearing children and taking care of the husband, who was largely the breadwinner. I will not brag, but Lizzie broke the prevailing belief within the community, becoming a topic of ridicule, for wanting to be a ‘white Miss working class’. On the other hand, their husbands flatly refused their wives to acquire courses, feeling satisfied by their income, since the economy was still performing better. In her absence, we were taken care of by a maid, while she attended her daily courses.

*

For the very first time, in 1985, after the crop harvest, we travelled to Massara, Mozambique, to visit my grandparents, arriving well after sunset, although the remnants of the hot day were being felt, the immense heat of the Dande Valley scorching living organisms into submission. At the station, we waited for hours for our guide, uncle Edmund, to lead us illegally across the border into Mozambique, first via a dirt road, which later turned into large, yawning dongas, adjacent to a landmine field, set up during the war to stop fighters from getting into Mozambique for training. On our way, he cautioned us to follow his commands in silence, which was impossible, since it was in total darkness, except for his torch, otherwise the border police would arrest us. After the gruelling three-hour journey of getting lost, evading the border security, tension, fear and confusion, and falling in wells, we finally arrived home at midnight.

Ngetani, who had long retired, spent his days inside the cotton fields or lounging alongside other villagers enjoying the local brew made of wild masawu fruits. When my grandmother saw me, she hugged us all in excitement.

“Welcome to the village, muana ua Pedro (the son of Peter). Do you like mavembe (watermelons)?”

The day after we arrived, we were instructed to eat the soil, so that “you will become one of us, and will not get sick,” and afterwards a cockerel was slaughtered to enlighten our welcome. What a taste! This was really fast food, but I had to be faster to corner a hard body cockerel. After dinner, Grandmother told us folktales. Before the next day’s cockerel crowing ,she was gone, again. She was allergic to sleep. That night my stomach gripped.

“Perhaps he had an overdose of wild fruits. It is just an upset in his mimba.”

Grandfather strengthened me instead. “He is a man. He will be alright.” I wriggled till sunrise.

Clutching a small hoe, the next morning grandmother vanished into the brush, her diminutive torso swallowed by the towering meadow. Under the shade, I lay wriggling on a reed mat in her absence, moments later, she returned bunching barbed roots. Methodically, she peeled the skin, chopped it rhythmically, then crushed it in a wooden gourd, spraying jets of water when needed. Her repetitive efforts yielded a foetid salivary juice. Occasionally, she sampled it, nodding in satisfaction, scooping a spoonful, mining the chuff.

“It is ready now,” she convinced herself.

Then she made me drink the concoction, the potion released a vicious taste. Initially, my taste buds rebelled, but she forced it down. I gurgled. I retched. She persisted. I gave in. She smirked. Then she waited, patiently. The wriggling quieted. Moans turned into faint chortles. And by midday, my tummy soothed. I was back in action, chasing after goats. For the first time, I saw Granny rising. 

“Grandma, why do you hate sleeping?” I asked worriedly. 

She stroked my hair, then replied. “You will understand everything when you grow up.” She later left to tend the cotton fields.

Days after our departure, Benedita, a female nephew, left for the borehole accompanied by her friends towards sunset but never returned. All the efforts to locate her were fruitless. For years, she did not turn up and her family concluded she had been abducted by the bandits, seeking a separation from the country. Arriving at the base, she was offered to the commander as a wife, resulting in her getting pregnant. She was released when the war eased, returning home to her parents. In one instance, Grandfather had his throat slit by a bullet during a siege by the bandits while he was at a beer gathering.

*

Today, three decades later, the road to grandfather’s home is still the same as when we first visited, it is still dusty, rugged, and floods when it rains, if ever it rains. A solo, battered ferry bus, the daily bus, the only fuelled transporter, now seldom comes, except at election time, when four-wheeled, tinted cars bearing party slogans will appear. Now the route mainly serves as a passage for cattle-drawn carts destined for yearly food relief points under the stewardship of party leaders. Or to queue at watering points. 

Oftentimes broken, abandoned. Or dry. Or both. But most of all, the route carries memories, the history of how my grandparents’ lives were shaped to become who they were. They might all be long gone, but they remain a part of my daily life and heavily influenced my character up to this day. For centuries, migration and regular movement across borders in search of a better life has been hereditary and firmly etched within my family’s DNA, both from my mother’s and father’s side. Without a doubt, it is a phenomenon that I later gladly inherited, even after the death of my forefathers and parents, and I am prepared to selflessly pass it on.

Derick Matsengarwodzi is a Zimbabwean versatile journalist and communication consultant with more than 20 years of experience. My experience includes the media, public relations, advertising and marketing including NGOs, global journalism and copywriting for an advertising agency, media monitoring and mentoring, corporate reputation management, brand intelligence and content creation. From 2011, he was a regular contributor for South African publications including The Witness (News24) newspaper in Pietermaritzburg, Mail and Guardian (SA), a health writer for Health Matters (Ezempilo), Africa Daily and Umlazi Magazine. Currently, he contributes regularly to Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Journalism Review, IJNet, Mongabay, African Arguments, Kalahari Review (Botswana), Nehanda Radio and The Zimbabwean (UK). His interactive blog: tinzwei.com uses various online tools to inform the world on trending news events.

 

*Image by Gregory Fullard on Unsplash

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