Place Names- Nemauzhe- An emotional Geography

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. 

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The Road Home

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.

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The Mysterious Mountains of Nemauzhe

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.

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My Mother

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.

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My Aunt Pounding Millet

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.

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My Grandmother Washing her Dishes.

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.

 

This House is Not for Sale by E.C. Osondu- A Book Review

fullsizerender-7This House is not for Sale is a treat for lovers of literary fiction that draws from the oral tradition of African storytelling. The setting is an un-named Nigerian town which, apart from the modern conveniences of piped water and electricity, feel very much like a village. The story about a Family house- from the time it was built to the time it was demolished- is told by a young member of a large and wealthy family, headed by Grandpa. The narrative unfolds with the grand patriarch telling the story of how his ancestors came into possession of the wealth that enabled them to build the Family House. The young member of the family describes the interesting array characters that make up the inhabitants of the family house and the fluid nature of the state of occupancy by these various people.
Grandpa is the sole determinant of who is welcomed or kicked out of the family house and while he is often a fair and benevolent leader, he is also cruel and calculating. He is the arbiter of disputes and he has the power to seal people’s fates and to alter destinies. This he does by wielding his influence on local authorities and calling on favors past. His authority is unquestionable and his decisions are final.
In the story of Ndozo the market seller who lives in the family house Grandpa is portrayed as a cruel employer when she is accused of pilfering from the profits made from selling Grandpa’s merchandise. She is publicly humiliated as is customary to treat thieves and she disappears leaving her son behind. Grandpa, who holds the power in his hands to change the course of events for the woman does nothing to help her and her please for forgiveness fall on deaf ears. Not even the fact that she begs to have her son back softens his heart.
Uncle Aya the eccentric religious zealot entangles himself with a charlatan pastor who convinces people in the community that the end of the world is close and to sell all their possessions and give him the money. There is uproar in the community when the pastor disappears with their money and the Rapture does not take place. Threats to burn the Family House down are quickly quelled by Grandpa’s effective use of logic and a firearm. The crowd disperses.
Abule shoots two of his wife’s lovers, killing one and ends up in jail for a crime of passion. Thanks to Grandpa he serves a short term and is released. He relocated to the village and Grandpa, an astute business man takes over his house and converts it into shops.
The novel is arranged in chapters that read like complete stories each named for the central character in each tale. In each story Grandpa’s might is felt through his various interventions or lack thereof. He is like a temperamental king with the town as his kingdom and the people his subjects. The chapters are vibrant with the unique cadence of Nigerian (Igbo) English and folklore woven into the narrative and often delivered as responses to events in the Family House in the voices of the community.
When Brother Julius returns from studying overseas, for instance, the community opined:
– Now that the son has returned from abroad he will bring some civilization into the house-
– He will change things, even from the way he speaks. If you were in the next rom you’d think it’s a foreigner speaking-
– He should have gone to stay elsewhere if he was different. Since he returned to the same house he is part of it-
– Exactly what did he study abroad? Is he a doctor, lawyer or engineer?
– I hear what he studied is so specialized that no university in our continent offers it-
– We are still here. We are not going anywhere. We are watching. We shall see- (pg.81).
The hearsay and the mutated versions of the stories of what Brother Julius was doing with the men who attended his ‘salons” at the house are incredibly humorous:
– I heard that all those men who enter that room follow their fellow men. They go with their fellow men-
– Shhhh, hush, don’t say that. This world is live and let live-
– But how do they make money from this salon?-
– They say the salon is not meant to make money, it is discussion of ideas for the betterment of society-
– If it does not make money how can it better society?-
– You are asking me?-
– Who do you want me to ask; did you hear that I am a member of their secret salon?-
– Well all I can say is that if they cannot make the world better, let them not ruin the world, they had better leave it the way they met it- (pg.84).
Osondu has skillfully created a story that is not only about a house and the people who live in it, but about a community with all the social, cultural, religious and political issues that make up the fabric of communities all over the world. In this way he tells a unique but universal story of human frailty, our capacity for malevolence and benevolence, our desires, aspirations and struggles. He writes of music and mourning, feast and famine, birth and death, success and failure and does so in language that disguises the complex intersections of all these human facets with its simplicity. The house becomes a character in the novel and like Grandpa seems to interact with its inhabitants and the community as a deity might, spitting out those with whom it is displeased and welcoming the fortunate ones. The use of allegory, whether intentional or not allows the reader to insert herself into the narrative and glean from the story what they will. Its timelessness makes this work one that will be relevant for years to come.
This is an outstanding first novel and I am sure that there will be more such powerful stories from Osondu.

No! I Need to Write

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Writing is a tricky business particularly if you are the only writer, and possibly, the only reader in your family. It is a solitary and often lonely affair. It is one of those things, in my own life, that requires me to go inward. This retraction from my external surroundings can happen at any moment and has been the cause of much discontent and sometimes outright rebellion from those I live with.

Mom, you are not listening to me!

Yes, I mutter, eyes glazed over, the vague outline of one of my four daughters on the periphery of my vision. I don’t even know which daughter it is at this point.

MOTHER please hurry; I will be late for volleyball practice.

Yes, I state, my inner eyes watching a scene in which I kill off one of my characters in the story I am currently working on. A nice guy. What a shame.

I am off to the grocery store. What do we need?

YES! I bark impatiently. He retreats, backing away slowly. I have now lost the sentence that has taken me days to craft. My husband had to pick the exact moment I finally sit down to write it to say something. What was it again? Frustrated, I turn from my notebook and check the time on my phone.

Time to cook dinner.

Dinner is served and we sit down to eat. Family dinner is rare in our household thanks to busy schedules that make it impossible to converge at the dinner table more than three or so times a week. I place fork-fills of food into my mouth, hardly tasting it. I am but a body shoveling sustenance into that body to stay alive. My mind and my senses have wondered to hang out with my character Khethiwe as she navigates the streets of Johannesburg.

Abruptly, I am yanked back to the dinner table by my fifteen-year-old yelling MOM! Shami just asked you how your day was. She is not really into family dinner mainly because I laid down that law and also because there are no electronic devices permitted at family dinner.

You’re the one who goes on and on about the importance of eating together but you are absent-minded.

I feel terrible. Yes, mea culpa.

It is not just my immediate family that bemoans a lack of connectedness stemming from my writing.

We don’t see you anymore
You never return my calls
Did I do something wrong?
Are you Okay?
You seem rather distant.

What non writers often do not understand is that in order to be able to write, I need to create a certain distance between myself and the external world around me. Doing this allows the seeds of a potential story to germinate and brings into sharp focus the key elements I need to incorporate to shape the story into what it wants to become. This invariably means saying no to dinner invitations and baby showers and other social events where I would end up miserable and grumpy (misery loves company) because of the urge to be alone to write.

No, sorry. I need to write. In the silence over the phone I can feel the hurt and bewilderment my response has caused. But if I was to try to explain why I need to be still and to go inward, I know it would only make matters worse. Besides in many languages that I speak, particularly my mother tongues Shona and Ndebele, there are no words to adequately describe what I need to convey. I feel bad, truly I do. But I need to write like a fish needs water.

On Facebook, even after politely bidding farewell to the kindred, the inbox messages pour in daily.

Can you respond to my status please?
Sister can you edit my manuscript?
Can you submit a short story to the inaugural issue of our journal X?

No, No, no I need to write.

A writer among non- writers can feel lonely and isolated. The beauty of solitude is often transmuted and becomes loneliness particularly when I allow the awareness that need to write has caused grievance, or that my loved ones feel neglected. Then I wallow in guilt, an emotion of little use, so I do the arduous work of talking to my embattled self. I need not feel guilty for being a writer of needing to write.

Part of what has helped me get to a reasonably sane place in my life among non-writers is to increase contact with other writers. I do this over coffee or as part of a group of writers who meet regularly. There I have discovered, much to my relief (sometimes laced with a tinge of schaden freude), that I am not alone in my quest for space and time to write and that the guilt that often gnaws at my gut is also chewing at the intestines of other writers.

I have learned a few useful ways to try to get some semblance of balance in my life among non-writers, such as waking up at 4am to put in a couple of hours of work before my household becomes chaos and pandemonium around 6am. The quietness in the house- save the white noise of the air conditioner- is conducive to all the meandering my mind requires, until the story that needs to be given voice alights gently. Then I am able to pick up my pen and allow the story to be given full expression.

I have notebooks scattered all over the house. For example, I have a chlorophyll-stained notebook on windowsill above the kitchen sink. While I perform inane tasks like chopping up vegetables I often reach out with feverish fingers dripping green juice to scribble an idea, the perfect sentence or even the perfect word for my story. I have a notebook in the living room that I write in during dull laundry-folding sessions. A notebook has found its way into my car, so that when inspiration comes knocking I am not found wanting. I look forward to the age when the technology of the self- driving car is readily available.

This would be a real revolution for my life as a writer.

There is much that is sacrificed at the altar of the Muse and for me the sacrifices I make to enable me to write are well worth it. Hard as it is sometimes, writing is my obsessive compulsive behavior, so while the non- writer world in which I live battles to understand my particular OCD, I assert my writer self. And like squeezing the last dollop of toothpaste from the tube, I eek out time and space to happily indulge my compulsion. This is my writing life lived among non-writers.

Place Names- Nemauzhe- An emotional Geography

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. 

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The Road Home

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.

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The Mysterious Mountains of Nemauzhe

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.

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My Mother

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.

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My Aunt Pounding Millet

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.

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My Grandmother Washing her Dishes.

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.

 

This House is Not for Sale by E.C. Osondu- A Book Review

fullsizerender-7This House is not for Sale is a treat for lovers of literary fiction that draws from the oral tradition of African storytelling. The setting is an un-named Nigerian town which, apart from the modern conveniences of piped water and electricity, feel very much like a village. The story about a Family house- from the time it was built to the time it was demolished- is told by a young member of a large and wealthy family, headed by Grandpa. The narrative unfolds with the grand patriarch telling the story of how his ancestors came into possession of the wealth that enabled them to build the Family House. The young member of the family describes the interesting array characters that make up the inhabitants of the family house and the fluid nature of the state of occupancy by these various people.
Grandpa is the sole determinant of who is welcomed or kicked out of the family house and while he is often a fair and benevolent leader, he is also cruel and calculating. He is the arbiter of disputes and he has the power to seal people’s fates and to alter destinies. This he does by wielding his influence on local authorities and calling on favors past. His authority is unquestionable and his decisions are final.
In the story of Ndozo the market seller who lives in the family house Grandpa is portrayed as a cruel employer when she is accused of pilfering from the profits made from selling Grandpa’s merchandise. She is publicly humiliated as is customary to treat thieves and she disappears leaving her son behind. Grandpa, who holds the power in his hands to change the course of events for the woman does nothing to help her and her please for forgiveness fall on deaf ears. Not even the fact that she begs to have her son back softens his heart.
Uncle Aya the eccentric religious zealot entangles himself with a charlatan pastor who convinces people in the community that the end of the world is close and to sell all their possessions and give him the money. There is uproar in the community when the pastor disappears with their money and the Rapture does not take place. Threats to burn the Family House down are quickly quelled by Grandpa’s effective use of logic and a firearm. The crowd disperses.
Abule shoots two of his wife’s lovers, killing one and ends up in jail for a crime of passion. Thanks to Grandpa he serves a short term and is released. He relocated to the village and Grandpa, an astute business man takes over his house and converts it into shops.
The novel is arranged in chapters that read like complete stories each named for the central character in each tale. In each story Grandpa’s might is felt through his various interventions or lack thereof. He is like a temperamental king with the town as his kingdom and the people his subjects. The chapters are vibrant with the unique cadence of Nigerian (Igbo) English and folklore woven into the narrative and often delivered as responses to events in the Family House in the voices of the community.
When Brother Julius returns from studying overseas, for instance, the community opined:
– Now that the son has returned from abroad he will bring some civilization into the house-
– He will change things, even from the way he speaks. If you were in the next rom you’d think it’s a foreigner speaking-
– He should have gone to stay elsewhere if he was different. Since he returned to the same house he is part of it-
– Exactly what did he study abroad? Is he a doctor, lawyer or engineer?
– I hear what he studied is so specialized that no university in our continent offers it-
– We are still here. We are not going anywhere. We are watching. We shall see- (pg.81).
The hearsay and the mutated versions of the stories of what Brother Julius was doing with the men who attended his ‘salons” at the house are incredibly humorous:
– I heard that all those men who enter that room follow their fellow men. They go with their fellow men-
– Shhhh, hush, don’t say that. This world is live and let live-
– But how do they make money from this salon?-
– They say the salon is not meant to make money, it is discussion of ideas for the betterment of society-
– If it does not make money how can it better society?-
– You are asking me?-
– Who do you want me to ask; did you hear that I am a member of their secret salon?-
– Well all I can say is that if they cannot make the world better, let them not ruin the world, they had better leave it the way they met it- (pg.84).
Osondu has skillfully created a story that is not only about a house and the people who live in it, but about a community with all the social, cultural, religious and political issues that make up the fabric of communities all over the world. In this way he tells a unique but universal story of human frailty, our capacity for malevolence and benevolence, our desires, aspirations and struggles. He writes of music and mourning, feast and famine, birth and death, success and failure and does so in language that disguises the complex intersections of all these human facets with its simplicity. The house becomes a character in the novel and like Grandpa seems to interact with its inhabitants and the community as a deity might, spitting out those with whom it is displeased and welcoming the fortunate ones. The use of allegory, whether intentional or not allows the reader to insert herself into the narrative and glean from the story what they will. Its timelessness makes this work one that will be relevant for years to come.
This is an outstanding first novel and I am sure that there will be more such powerful stories from Osondu.

No! I Need to Write

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Writing is a tricky business particularly if you are the only writer, and possibly, the only reader in your family. It is a solitary and often lonely affair. It is one of those things, in my own life, that requires me to go inward. This retraction from my external surroundings can happen at any moment and has been the cause of much discontent and sometimes outright rebellion from those I live with.

Mom, you are not listening to me!

Yes, I mutter, eyes glazed over, the vague outline of one of my four daughters on the periphery of my vision. I don’t even know which daughter it is at this point.

MOTHER please hurry; I will be late for volleyball practice.

Yes, I state, my inner eyes watching a scene in which I kill off one of my characters in the story I am currently working on. A nice guy. What a shame.

I am off to the grocery store. What do we need?

YES! I bark impatiently. He retreats, backing away slowly. I have now lost the sentence that has taken me days to craft. My husband had to pick the exact moment I finally sit down to write it to say something. What was it again? Frustrated, I turn from my notebook and check the time on my phone.

Time to cook dinner.

Dinner is served and we sit down to eat. Family dinner is rare in our household thanks to busy schedules that make it impossible to converge at the dinner table more than three or so times a week. I place fork-fills of food into my mouth, hardly tasting it. I am but a body shoveling sustenance into that body to stay alive. My mind and my senses have wondered to hang out with my character Khethiwe as she navigates the streets of Johannesburg.

Abruptly, I am yanked back to the dinner table by my fifteen-year-old yelling MOM! Shami just asked you how your day was. She is not really into family dinner mainly because I laid down that law and also because there are no electronic devices permitted at family dinner.

You’re the one who goes on and on about the importance of eating together but you are absent-minded.

I feel terrible. Yes, mea culpa.

It is not just my immediate family that bemoans a lack of connectedness stemming from my writing.

We don’t see you anymore
You never return my calls
Did I do something wrong?
Are you Okay?
You seem rather distant.

What non writers often do not understand is that in order to be able to write, I need to create a certain distance between myself and the external world around me. Doing this allows the seeds of a potential story to germinate and brings into sharp focus the key elements I need to incorporate to shape the story into what it wants to become. This invariably means saying no to dinner invitations and baby showers and other social events where I would end up miserable and grumpy (misery loves company) because of the urge to be alone to write.

No, sorry. I need to write. In the silence over the phone I can feel the hurt and bewilderment my response has caused. But if I was to try to explain why I need to be still and to go inward, I know it would only make matters worse. Besides in many languages that I speak, particularly my mother tongues Shona and Ndebele, there are no words to adequately describe what I need to convey. I feel bad, truly I do. But I need to write like a fish needs water.

On Facebook, even after politely bidding farewell to the kindred, the inbox messages pour in daily.

Can you respond to my status please?
Sister can you edit my manuscript?
Can you submit a short story to the inaugural issue of our journal X?

No, No, no I need to write.

A writer among non- writers can feel lonely and isolated. The beauty of solitude is often transmuted and becomes loneliness particularly when I allow the awareness that need to write has caused grievance, or that my loved ones feel neglected. Then I wallow in guilt, an emotion of little use, so I do the arduous work of talking to my embattled self. I need not feel guilty for being a writer of needing to write.

Part of what has helped me get to a reasonably sane place in my life among non-writers is to increase contact with other writers. I do this over coffee or as part of a group of writers who meet regularly. There I have discovered, much to my relief (sometimes laced with a tinge of schaden freude), that I am not alone in my quest for space and time to write and that the guilt that often gnaws at my gut is also chewing at the intestines of other writers.

I have learned a few useful ways to try to get some semblance of balance in my life among non-writers, such as waking up at 4am to put in a couple of hours of work before my household becomes chaos and pandemonium around 6am. The quietness in the house- save the white noise of the air conditioner- is conducive to all the meandering my mind requires, until the story that needs to be given voice alights gently. Then I am able to pick up my pen and allow the story to be given full expression.

I have notebooks scattered all over the house. For example, I have a chlorophyll-stained notebook on windowsill above the kitchen sink. While I perform inane tasks like chopping up vegetables I often reach out with feverish fingers dripping green juice to scribble an idea, the perfect sentence or even the perfect word for my story. I have a notebook in the living room that I write in during dull laundry-folding sessions. A notebook has found its way into my car, so that when inspiration comes knocking I am not found wanting. I look forward to the age when the technology of the self- driving car is readily available.

This would be a real revolution for my life as a writer.

There is much that is sacrificed at the altar of the Muse and for me the sacrifices I make to enable me to write are well worth it. Hard as it is sometimes, writing is my obsessive compulsive behavior, so while the non- writer world in which I live battles to understand my particular OCD, I assert my writer self. And like squeezing the last dollop of toothpaste from the tube, I eek out time and space to happily indulge my compulsion. This is my writing life lived among non-writers.