A Karanga-Shona saying goes: you tethered to the soil in which one’s umbilical stump is buried. In June of 1972, twelve days after my birth, my maternal grandmother left the sleeping hut where I lay fast asleep next to my young mother who was exhausted after a traumatic eighteen hours of labor. Mbuya pulled a hoe from beneath the elevated storage barn. She carried my umbilical stump which had fallen off to expose a neat belly button. That it was the stump and not me she was burying was a cause for great thanksgiving. The falling of the stump signaled that I was out of the limbo between the living and the dead. I was now considered fully alive as the last evidence of my former fetal state fell off my body. Under the light of the iridescent stars, she walked gingerly towards the back of the homestead. There, she dug a deep circular hole, deep enough so that the dogs could not dig it up, and buried my stump, rooting me to the place of my birth. Little did my grandmother know, as she consecrated me to my ancestors and prayed for my safe coming and going, that the coming and going would be over unimaginable distances, across oceans and many continents.
Nemauzhe is a small village nestled in the hinterland of the south-eastern part of Zimbabwe. It is a two-hour drive from the town of Masvingo, the provincial capital. As one heads out of Masvingo along the wide tarred road in the direction of Beitbridge one cannot help but to marvel at the magical beauty of the surrounding landscape. As a child, I had made this annual trip with my family from the city. My father strongly believed that although we went to school and lived in the city of Bulawayo most of the year, an annual pilgrimage to the village was good for our development as well rounded human beings. He was convinced that without this, we would grow up unappreciative of what we had and filled with a sense of entitlement that would be an impediment to our success as adults.
“A dose of hardship now and then is good for the soul”, he would say as we sulkily loaded our bags into the boot of his blue Datsun 120Y. At the time, I resented my father for what I considered an infliction of gratuitous hardship on our pampered selves. After all, weren’t parents supposed to give their children the best? How could a trip to hot dry Nemauzhe possibly be considered best, when the alternative was episodes of Dallas, Dynasty and Sounds on Saturday on television? How could tales about going to the ‘sticks’ and herding goats for three weeks ever compete with recounts of trips to Cape Town and Durban which some of our school friends would regale us with when we returned after the holidays? Despite the protests, we soon resigned to the journey and purposed to enjoy every minute of our days in the gwashas-rural areas.
The drive from Masvingo to the turn off which would take us to Nemauzhe was and still is, my favorite part of the drive. The huge grey mountains that flank the wide tarred dual carriageway always made me melancholic. As a child, I would look at the isolated trees along the slopes and imagine helicopters during the war of liberation dropping solders, who would hastily make their way down and into the surrounding villages. I imagined the freedom fighters camped at the base of these mountains singing their songs of freedom and indoctrinating villagers at the pungwes (all night vigils) on the need to be loyal and steadfast in the struggle. I imagined them eating chicken and goat stew and mountains of sadza prepared under cover by the village maidens and surreptitiously carried from the homesteads, through the bush to the base camp at the foot of the mountain. My mind would wonder as I imagined the spirits of dead soldiers and comrades restlessly roaming across the valleys and mountains. We would drive past burnt out buildings, relics of the recent war which had culminated in Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, and I would wonder whether there had been anybody inside while the fires raged. I would add their lamenting spirits to those of the wailing dead soldiers and comrades and I would get goose bumps as I imagined all these spirits joining their voices with those of the heroes of the first war of liberation-Chimurenga [1896-1897]. I imagined those early heroes who fought against British colonials, Nehanda and Kaguvi leading a vibrant song with a million harmonies as they flew across the eerily beautiful, rugged landscape of Zimbabwe.
The junction to the dirt road that leads to Nemauzhe is hidden by tall elephant grass in the rainy season and it is a narrow dirt track which could be mistaken for a foot path in the winter. One can only venture in a sturdy truck or a land rover and the journey is transformed from a smooth 60- mile- an- hour cruise to a bumpy 10- mile- per- hour ride, signaling the beginning of the divestment of all things superfluous. The challenge is to avoid deep ruts and the occasional stray goat or fowl from the homesteads which are just a few meters from the dirt road. The car sends up plumes of red dust, and a motley crew of children is swathed in it as they chase after the car, shouting and laughing with abandon. I smile wryly as I notice a child wearing a worn oversized navy blue tee shirt with ‘Michigan Wolverines’ emblazoned on the front in faded yellow letters. I wonder which second hand charity box that came out of.
I drive past the derelict elementary school building which was once white but is now the color of weak tea. Some of the windows have no panes and there are gaping holes in the roof. It is deserted because the children are on school holidays. A few of the doors are broken down and hanging on one hinge. Probably the work of thieves breaking in to steal whatever they can sell for a few dollars. Across the road from the school is the only dry goods store for miles. This store has been there for as long as I can remember. It is here that we would come as children on Christmas day, preening in our brand-new Christmas clothes. There would be a gramophone outside the store on the verandah and people dancing. This gave us an opportunity to see what the other children in the village were wearing and to crown the best dancer for the year. We would twirl, gyrate and stomp to the sounds of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Safirio Mazdikatire, Yellowman, Solomon Skuza, Lovemore Majaivana and Oliver Mutukudzi. There were easily thirty children seriously engaged in dance. We would all get sweets from the owner of the store because our rhythmic prowess attracted customers, who came to spectate, to participate when the beat became overpoweringly irresistible and ultimately to buy beer to quench their dance induced thirst. That was about thirty years ago.
As I survey the semi-arid surroundings from my car, which is starting to feel like a brick oven, I am burdened by the realization that life in Nemauzhe cannot be romanticized. Life in this village is hard and the earth is unyielding. I harken back to the days when Black people were moved from lush fecund lands and forced to settle in places like Nemauzhe where the soil is rocky and infertile and the rainfall is poor. This was to create huge farms for the Whites, an issue which would eventually be the campaign focus for those fighting for Black empowerment and majority rule. Land for the people- would be the rallying cry from the early sixties until the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement and the call for a ceasefire in 1979.
I feel the weight of responsibility for this place, which over the years has shown no progress. If anything, the little infrastructure that there is has deteriorated. I need to do something. After all, this is my birthplace. Yet I am only one individual. Maybe I can fund the restoration of the school and raise funds for the building of a library. Maybe I can raise funds for some underground water wells. I used to walk to this school with my older cousins when I was 4 years old and I would sit in the grade 3 classroom and recite the times tables with them, without a clue as to the meaning of what we were chanting in unison. Back then the roof was intact and the walls were white. That was 34 years ago.
I traverse an almost dry riverbed over a makeshift bridge and women tending their vegetable gardens and carrying watering cans from the shallow pools in the sandy bed wave enthusiastically as though to a long-lost family member returning home. This is what is always so disarming about returning to Nemauzhe: the joyfulness that people here display despite their rather grim and arduous existence. I have a hard time exhibiting unencumbered joy because of the guilt that threatens to suffocate me, and what I perceive to be a depressing environment. The guilt is induced by recollections of my life in America, a life that might be termed a life of opulence relatively speaking. The depressing surroundings are decried by the sheer exuberance of the people, who go about their simple daily chores unfettered by thoughts of what they do not have or of their limited circumstances. They walk 5 miles to the nearest well to fetch water and return full of chatter and a song on their lips. They forage for firewood, a scarce resource because there are now very few trees growing out of the denuded soil, and they return sucking on sour wild fruits and laughing heartily at some shared joke. They cook the same meals and enjoy them as though they were tasting sadza and greens for the first time. I cannot help but wonder where the irrepressible little girl who ran hard, fought harder and whose mischief making drove everyone to their wits end has disappeared to. I smile as I recall how I used to milk the cows lying underneath the udder, squirting warm creamy milk directly into my mouth. If the mountains had a memory and a mouth, they would tell the story of how I would create a sled out of a tree branch and slide down their slopes, shredding my panties and my buttocks on the rough rock face. Whatever I was forbidden from doing, I did with relish, and effervescent laughter simmered just underneath my skin, waiting to explode at the slightest tickle. I am a grown woman and the spontaneous little girl has been crowded out by too much living, too much thinking and too much caution. I am the only one dealing with complex emotions and thoughts as I try to reconcile all the worlds in which I exist. Sometimes I wonder how I am able to achieve the balance without developing multiple personality disorder or suffering a schizophrenic psychotic break.
Nemauzhe is a humbling place. Whenever my grandmother visited us in the city, she would be itching to go back after two weeks and I was baffled as to why she would want to leave the comfort of a nice bed, piped water and great food for her life in the village. I now understood what the pull to go back was: Nemauzhe strips one to one’s bare essence. It is no respecter of image and there is no space for frills and frivolities. It is a place against which one can pit every ounce of one’s fighting strength and one will never win. It forces one to confront one’s own mortality and to acknowledge the fragility and transient nature of one’s existence. There is no doctor for miles, there are no phone lines and there is no cellular network, there is no television and the radio reception is lousy. Technology wields no power in Nemauzhe and the computer and the iPhone are nothing and mean nothing in Nemauzhe, surrounded on all four sides by mysterious grey mountains. Nemauzhe brings into keen focus the vital aspects of life: birth, death, the seasons, time to plant, time to reap, time to eat and time to sleep. It forces one to live fully in the present, because the future is not guaranteed. A cup of water is drunk slowly, with reverence and gratitude for the feet that walked a total of 10miles to fetch it. Meals are partaken of with a reflective attitude, in contemplation of the hands that ploughed the fields, threshed the corn and ground it into mealie meal to make the sadza. There is a sense of collective gratitude and relief when the rains fall at the appropriate time for planting, the streams fill up and the livestock fatten on lush green grass and produce young. This is the attitude of people here, with their philosophical responses to all of life’s questions. It gradually becomes my attitude as my car crawls along the rough road and I surrender once again to Nemauzhe.
I see my grandfather’s homestead atop a gently sloping granite hill and I feel the tension in my umbilical tether gently slacken. This is home, the place where most of my childhood was spent. Back then the homestead was alive and buzzing with activity and children. My grandfather has five wives so it is easy to envisage the huge household with all the drama associated with large polygamous families. There are very few people left now.
As a child, shortly after our arrival from the city, my cousins would drag us away from the adults once the formal greetings were over and we would head out of the home stead towards the stream and the bush to play and to catch up on what had gone on since our last visit. The terrain was very familiar because it had been my playground since I was three years old. We would head out to the stream and dip our feet in the murky water. We would scare each other with ever more horrific tales of njuzu (mermaids) who kidnapped young women and kept them as slaves in their underwater kingdom. Gossip about who had recently been labeled a witch and been banished from the village was plentiful. We reveled in the stories of fights and which teenage cousin had fallen pregnant and eloped before the elders found out about her disgraced state and meted out justice.
That evening after our bucket baths behind the pit latrine, we would enjoy a supper of Sadza and curdled milk sprinkled with brown sugar. The children would be placed in age group categories that would all eat from the same bowl using our hands, chatting all the while and making fun of one another. It was a simple meal but one made so special because we partook of it communally. We basked in one another’s presence as we appreciated the still quiet night without the old fear of gunfire or the frightening intrusion by soldiers or comrades. The sounds of muted adult voices emanating from inside the huts imbued us with a sense of security as we ate our meal under the star studded black velvet sky.
After the plates were cleared away, the drums would come out and the merriment would begin in earnest. We would sing old songs which I remembered from the time I was three years old and perform the traditional dances that accompanied them. The city dwellers would be taught the new songs and the latest dances. We celebrated with Shona Roman Catholic Rhythms, Dutch Reformed church hymns and with old Karanga folk songs led by my grandfather and his five wives.
Yodeling is not a style of singing confined to the mountain people of Switzerland. Karanga folk music is decorated with soulful yodels from the singers, who become “other worldly” as their voice boxes emit wondrous rifts of sound tinged with sorrow.
We danced the Mhande, the Shangari and the Bira, and we learned the Dhikondo. From the oldest grey heads supported by their walking sticks to the youngest toddler running on the spot and falling on their backside, everyone took their turn dancing, while the drummers feverishly pummeled their instruments till sweat poured down their faces in rivulets. This was life in Nemauzhe under the stars, with the fire burning for illumination, and the mysterious mountains standing guard on all four sides…
As I park the car under the Syringa tree with its gnarled bare branches, which has been there ever since I can remember, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude for this place. I feel very fortunate that my grandparents are still alive and I watch with excitement as all five of my grandmothers and the old dandy himself hurry towards the car to greet me. I am filled with emotion as my maternal grandmother pulls me into her embrace. I inhale the smell of wood smoke, her signature scent, and my ears tingle as she whispers; “welcome home my child”. I am grateful for the simplicity and depth of life as it is lived in Nemauzhe, where people rise with the sun and saunter from place to place at an unhurried pace. I am thankful for how the most mundane events, like the birthing of a nanny goat, can be the fulcrum of a discussion which ends when the participants mutually decide that it has reached its natural conclusion, however long that takes. It is a privilege to be in the company of people who are fully present, fully engaged with one another and who value life for its own sake. I am grateful that after all these years I am still considered part of this land. I am not a sojourner. I belong here in my birth place, my home.
As I sit here in my study in Ann Arbor Michigan, looking out onto the pristine white blanket of snow covering my front yard, I feel the familiar tension in my umbilical tether. The longer I stay away from Nemauzhe and the mysterious grey mountains, the more unbearable the tension becomes. It is this gentle and insistent tug that propels me every couple of years to endure the eighteen- hour plane ride from Atlanta to Johannesburg, then from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, where I hire a car and drive to Nemauzhe. This is the year I head home to the place where my umbilical stump is buried. What a comfort it is, to know that I am rooted in Nemauzhe.