16 May 2012

Zimbabwe: Racial Memories of Lived Experience


Sometimes white people come to visit the villages around here. Most of the visitors include Americans, Australians, British, Canadians and others from various European countries. They come to preach the Gospel, to give food aid, to train or to research on why Africans are so poor.

Quite often, they come here because they are our friends. The visitors, varungu ivava, like it here and they say Zimbabwe is not as bad as what the Western media portrays.

They also say the villages are peaceful, the golden sunset is very beautiful and the people are friendly and welcoming. We talk, drink, laugh, dance, eat and even pray with our white friends.

And yet, after all these years, most of the people in this village and in all the villages from Hwedza mountains, right along the Save river valley to Dorova, know very little about the world of white people.

There was a time before independence, when most of us in this village had never seen a white person. Miss Rwodzi, our Grade Two teacher at St Columbus School, once asked who among us had seen white people.

"Makamboona varungu here?"

Only three out of about 40 students raised their hands. The three students said they had been on the village bus to Salisbury (Harare) and spotted white people walking outside their big homes.

They did not get off the bus to see white people up close because only maids and gardeners were allowed to go to places where white people lived.

Miss Rwodzi then said she knew a lot about white people because she had been taught by white Methodist missionaries at Waddilove Mission near Marandellas (Marondera).

She said the whole purpose of coming to school was to prepare us to leave the village and eventually move to Salisbury where we were going to go from office to another office begging the white man for a job.

It was therefore important that Miss Rwodzi prepare us well for the inevitable encounter with the world of white people.

As a way of introduction, Miss Rwodzi brought pictures of white people she found in The African Times, in comics and also in the religious Watchtower magazines. She showed us pictures of Jesus with long hair and blue eyes and a beard, pictures of Joseph, Mary and all the white disciples.

In one picture, Jesus stood upright in long robes, surrounded by white children in a garden with flowers.

Some white lambs grazed in the background and up in the sky white baby-faced cherubic angels with wings looked down on them.

The children had ponytails and they wore pretty dresses, socks and shoes. They held flowers to Jesus.

At the bottom of the photo were the words, "Let the children come unto me."

Miss Rwodzi cut out some of these pictures and pinned them on to the wall next to the picture of Mr Hancock, the school inspector, and Miss Margaret Kirkman, our radio teacher.

Miss Kirkman's portrait was in black and white. Her long smooth hair fell loosely on the shoulders and she stared at us with half a smile.

Once a week, (when the batteries were working), we sat around the radio and Miss Rwodzi tuned in to the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation at the appointed time.

Miss Kirkman spoke in English slowly and asked us to repeat words after her. That way, our ears were trained to listen to the way white people spoke.

We asked Miss Rwodzi to write a letter inviting Mrs Margaret Kirkman to our school so we could see a real white woman for the first time.

But Miss Rwodzi said Mrs Kirkman would never visit us because our villages were too remote and too far away, hidden as we were behind the Hwedza mountains in a valley where no buses or cars came.

For consolation, Miss Rwodzi said the only white person likely to visit us was Mr Hancock, the school inspector.

He came once every four years and since he had not turned up two years before we started Grade One, he was going to come before Grade Two was over.

We expected to see Mr Hancock's little car coming down the potholed village roads any day.

That is why Miss Rwodzi carried out a thorough inspection of our uniforms, teeth, hair and nails for cleanliness on a daily basis.

We waited for Mr Hancock so we could see a white man for the first time, but he did not come that year or the year after. One day I was asked to accompany the herdboy to the dip tank and keep an eye on my mother's new stubborn cow.

Looking through a stampede of cattle being forced to go into the dipping pool, I saw a white man for the first time. He sat on top of a grey truck, dangling his heavy boots. The herdboy said the white man was our cattle inspector. He came to inspect the cattle for rinderpest and other animal diseases.

The white cattle inspector also came to check that Mudhibhisi, the African dip attendant, was doing his job to ensure that Africans had a minimum of five cattle and they paid cattle tax on time.

We watched Mudhibhisi nervously handing over cattle registration books to the inspector.

We all knew that Mudhibhisi had been on a campaign telling village heads of households to reduce their cattle to five each because there were not enough grazing pastures in the Tribal Trust Lands or TTLs.

But people like Sekuru Dickson and Mbuya VaMandirowesa were among the stubborn people who kept more than 15 cattle, despite Mudhibisi's threats to get them arrested.

Because I saw the white cattle inspector from a distance and my view was blocked by cattle and cowdung dust, I could not describe him well to Miss Rwodzi and the others back at school.

A year or more later, the headmaster called everyone to school one evening. He said a white man had arrived in a big van accompanied by several African men.

We stood there, right next to the white man.

He was big and hairy, a real white man, murungu, bhasa chaiye. Through an interpreter, murungu showed us something called a bioscope, a projector and all kinds of machinery. He said he was going to show us something called a film.

We sat in the dust in front and all the elders sat at the back, including the village headmen and kraal heads.

A big light shone on the classroom wall and suddenly, we saw people on the screen moving and talking.

There were screams and screeches of excitement, laughter and alarm in the crowd. A film called "The Adventures of Tickey," started rolling on the screen.

Tickey was a very naughty young man who went to Salisbury and played funny tricks, cheating people and each time he did that, a white man chased after him.

Tickey was extraordinary in the way he simply ran and almost flew, (fast forward) over hills, rivers and mountains. But the white man in the film always caught him and slapped him hard on his cheeks, telling him what a bad native boy he was.

We all laughed at Tickey's silly tricks and called him a fool. After Tickey, came a scary film about murder in a jungle. We saw a very dark-skinned, ugly African man with wild hair walking with another smaller man in a lonely bush. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the dark man murdered his companion with a knobkerrie and buried him in a thick bush.

He stood on the burial spot and said that nobody would ever find the victim. "Wafa, warova!" he shouted and disappeared. In no time at all, we saw a white policeman and a couple of black watchers, mabhurakwacha, coming along with a big dog.

We had never seen a dog so big. It was much bigger than any of our skinny village dogs.

The dog led the way, sniffing through the bush. Suddenly the dog stopped on the exact spot where the body was buried and we all put our hands on the mouths and shouted, "Haa!"

From the bush, the dog led the team straight to a village where some people were gathered at a ceremony drinking beer.

Upon seeing the white policemen, the people froze in fear and stood still like trees. The presence of a white man spelt trouble.

The dog sniffed around beer pots and other utensils then went straight to the dark and very ugly man with wild hair. He barked hard at the man and before the dog could bite him, mabhurakwacha placed handcuffs on the murderer.

Dzakachena ipapo.

The white policeman slapped the murderer very hard on the face, said something and we jeered at the murderer. Then the white man and his dog got into the front seat of the car while mabhurakwacha and the murderer sat in the open truck at the back.

They drove to Salisbury where we saw another white man with a gun open the jail for the murderer.

There was some music and scenes of white people walking in the city and words saying, "The End."

Some people said, "Ah, the white man is smart. Murungu akangwara veduwee!"

Before he left, the white man and his film crew promised to bring us more on the adventures of Tickey, the native boy and other movies.

Years later, white people now visit the villages more than ever before. But most people still do not know much about them because there is a big racial and cultural gap between us.

Memories of first contact, colonisation, forced labour (chibaro), taxes, war, death, hate and unusual friendships between blacks and whites remain.

We continue to gloss over and keep hidden the bad memories of our past. Why cause discomfort and spoil the good intentions of the donor, the preacher and the business partner by bringing up the past?

After all these years of mixing and working together, we cannot always ignore the past as if it does not matter because that past has a bearing on how we relate to each other in the present.

Although most of the white visitors to the village were not here when our troubled racial history started, they must go beyond admiring the golden sunset and African smiles and ask what happened.

Some angry feelings, unsure smiles and silences in the present have a lot to do with our less than equal encounter with white people and on-going unresolved racial experiences.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and is a consultant and director of The Simukai Development Project.

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