Zimbabwe-born novelist Panashe Chigumadzi has written a grand political essay that responds to the November 2017 ousting of Robert Mugabe. Tracking Zimbabwe’s history, she weaves a narrative shaped by two ancestral forces, anti-colonial heroine Mbuya Nehanda and her own grandmother.
These Bones Will Rise Again
by Panashe Chigumadzi
R175 at takealot.com
I meet her gaze again.
Mbuya steps into the studio. A cameraman is directing her to pose like glamorous women who appear in publications such as African Parade, Bantu Mirror and the African Weekly.
Who took this photo? A John Mauluka, or Bester Kanyama of Southern Rhodesia’s studios?
Which were the studios that this young African woman could have stepped into? Salisbury’s Amato Studios? Highfield’s Rhodesian Studios? Rusape’s Makoni Studios? Bulawayo’s S. Pontonjie Photographic Studios?
Whichever studio she found herself in, she was a young African marking her moment in history, at a time heavy with transformation, disjuncture and dislocation.
I set about reconstructing her image.
My maternal grandmother Mbuya Beneta Chiganze’s soft reedy voice reassures me about the tentative start I am making. I continue in Shona.
‘Mbuya, there are things I would like to ask you about your life tomorrow evening. Please be prepared.’
‘About my life?’
‘What exactly do you want to know?’ ‘Things like where you came from, where you were born, what your mother’s name was. Things like that.’
‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘I would just like to know nhoroondo ye mhuri. This morning before we left kwaMurehwa I sat with vanatete and they told me a lot about our family and where we came from.’
‘Are you writing a book?’
I do not want to say yes because my idea is still to focus the book I am writing on Mbuya Chigumadzi.
It is Christmas Eve. It takes time to convince Mbuya Chiganze. I explain that I had done something similar that very morning before we had left kwaMurehwa.
My father’s youngest sister Tete Evie, my grandfather’s three surviving sisters, Tetes Ena, Evert and Venencia and I sat together to draw a family tree five generations back to ‘Tateguru’ Chigumadzi, the first to come to what would become Murehwa communal lands.
Driving from Murehwa to Gandiya village, around 85km west of Mutare, my family and I had already got the sense that this Christmas, the first ‘post-Mugabe’, felt a little different.
The Harare–Mutare highway, which used to be riddled with potholes, had been regraded in the last two years and, thanks to the military coup-not-a-coup that had reined in the powers of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, there were no road blocks to harass and extract bribes every 50km.
It should have been a less stressful drive, except the roads were full of motorists cutting corners and overtaking on blind curves, impatient to spend Christmas kumusha.
We were delayed by the seemingly kilometres-long queues at the Rusape tollgate, an innovation of the more economically savvy 2009–13 Government of National Unity between Zanu–PF and the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change]. On a two-lane highway, drivers take the initiative to create six lanes.
There are queues for EcoCash mobile money payments, and queues for cash payments. And, as if to spite us – the citizenry – for having had their hands tied by the ‘new dispensation’ in the aftermath of the coup-not-a-coup, the few police officials on duty don’t do much more than occasionally point a half-hearted finger here and there before returning to their phones or folding their arms.
Having survived the tollgate, our grocery stop in Rusape’s OK supermarket had also taken longer than usual. Unlike other years, there are queues of people eager to eat Christmas well.
These delays mean that, despite our mid morning departure from Murehwa, we fail to arrive in Gandiya village before nightfall, as is usual, much to Mbuya Chiganze’s dismay.
As soon as the familiar sign in front of Mbuya Chiganze’s gate, ‘NDAPOTA VHARAI GEDHI!’, PLEASE CLOSE THE GATE!, appeared, I had already begun trying to persuade myself to ask her about her personal history.
The tall matriarch stood waiting to welcome us with my mother’s only sister, Mainini Foro. I continued to bargain with myself until we retired to bed.
Although there are several spare bedrooms, with long stretches between visits I prefer the intimacy of sleeping with Mbuya and Mainini.
Mbuya refused, as usual, to sleep on her bed. She laid out her mattress, while Mainini and I took the bed.
That evening there is much activity on the dust road. Kombis are going up and down with relatives coming from town.
Lying in the dark, we are listening out for the sound of my uncle, Sekuru Timothy, the oldest of this house, arriving from Harare. We think it is one of them passing Mbuya’s gate but it isn’t.
The radio is too loud, blasting one of 2017’s hits, Jah Prayzah’s Ndin’ndamubata. I’m the one who caught her. Mainini and Mbuya agree that this has been one of the busiest Christmases in a while.
The ‘new dispensation’ seems to have generated confidence. People seem to be spending money and making the journey home to celebrate and enact the hope of good times ahead.
As we listen to the night’s activities, I’m still bargaining with myself. Eventually, the sting of my regret over not having spoken to Mbuya Chigumadzi pushes me to make a tentative start.
Suspicious though she is, Mbuya Chiganze eventually agrees.
She makes me promise that I will have whatever I write translated into Shona so that she will be able to read it. I know she will.
Every available surface of her bedroom is topped with biblical literature, Shona school readers, self- and agricultural improvement guides and many copies of the Shona language daily, Kwayedza, notorious for its splash stories of witchcraft and scandal.
Sometimes we stumble over language. Mainini is a bridge between Mbuya’s deep Manyika dialect and my Manyika-Zezuru hodgepodge.
Mbuya repeats the phrase, ‘Bhabha wedhu wekudhenga.’ ‘Our Father in heaven.’ She is imitating the accented Shona of the white Anglican priests. She says this is what I sometimes sound like.
Sometimes she gets frustrated with my line of questioning. ‘Zvimwe hazvibvunzwi.’ Some things are just not asked about. ‘How could I have asked my own mother such a thing?’
Sometimes I am not sure how to continue asking as she relays difficult experiences.
It feels cruel, voyeuristic, to ask her to tell me more about what it was like for her and her family to be put into the lorries that carried them from their original musha to a place they did not know during the forced removals of her girlhood, or to ask her to describe how she felt when she saw the school trunk returning home on top of the bus without its owner, her third-born son, just fourteen years old, confirming that he had not started his second year at St Faith’s as they had expected, but had hitch-hiked to Mozambique with friends to join the Chimurenga.
‘To cry? You could not. You just had to keep it to yourself. This was war.’