23 October 2012

Zimbabwe: The Migrant to Malawi


Many years ago, when Harare was still called Salisbury my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, used to say we should not go there. She said Salisbury was a jungle, musango, where you could be eaten by the lions, jackals and all kinds of snakes.

It was her way of telling us that people in the city behaved like animals without any respect for one another. Once you got off the village bus at Mbare Musika, some people changed.

They stopped greeting one another and they did not ask about each other's health. They only cared for themselves. Aona kwake, aona kwake.

The people you met in the streets were neither your relatives nor your friends. They could befriend you and then steal from you. Salisbury was full of selfish and immoral people who only cared about making money.

Every time men in the village compound prepared to go back to work in Salisbury, Gwelo (Gweru) or to the coal mines in Hwange, (Wankie), mbuya spoke to the ancestors and told them to guide them all in the jungle.

She said lions roared in the city jungle and one was bound to be eaten away by modern life and forget where home was.

"Do not turn your back on the village in favour of the white man's sweets. Usapire musha gotsi nekuda zviwitsi zvevarungu," she would say.

Mbuya said in Salisbury there were places for white people only and other places for black people only and if you are caught using the toilet for white people you would end up in jail.

She knew a lot about toilet usage because one of our relatives worked in the toilet for Africans in First Street in the underground toilet.

Her job was to unlock the toilet, collect five pence, and then offer just enough toilet paper for the customer. When our relative came home for Christmas, she had very little to show that she was working everyday in a toilet.

Mbuya said that is what Salisbury did to you, you could spend many years working and in the end you come back to the village with nothing.

And yet mbuya had never been to Salisbury, Bulawayo or any of the big cities. The nearest towns she had visited briefly were Chivhu when it was Enkeldoorn. But we still listened to her when she told us about faraway foreign cities to be avoided.

When my father came back home from Salisbury for Rhodes and Founders Day, Christmas and Easter, Mbuya told him to make enough money to pay the Rhodesian government's hut, cattle, land and dog taxes. Then he was to come home and work on the land.

My father talked about his Malawian and Zambian friends who were buying houses in the African suburbs of Highfield, Mufakose, Mbare and Kambuzuma. But mbuya said he should not buy a house over there because the city was not home.

"If you make it your home, one day it will spit you up, then what do you do?" she asked.

One Christmas my father came back with a gramophone. He set it up under the mango tree, on the edge of the village courtyard.

The most popular long play record that year was called "Aphiri Anabwela, kuchoka kuMalawi." Everyone in the village came to dance to that song.

Years later, I learnt that the song was sung by Nashil Pichen Kazembe, a Zambian singer from Luapula Province near the Congolese border. In the 1970s, Kazembe was part of the Eagles Lupopo Band and he also sang with the band Super Mazembe singing in Zambian, Congolese and Kenyan languages.

It was a song about Phiri, a migrant worker in South Africa or Rhodesia who returns home to Malawi after many years with nothing.

He finds that his parents and all the relatives are dead, Aphiri anga wose wose anamwalila kudala. He brings home nothing except an empty suitcase and musuitcase kulibe chindu.

Pichen Kazembe was singing about the Malawians who worked for many years in Southern Rhodesia on farms, in houses and everywhere. Many of them did not go back home to Malawi. Vakarovera kuno. My father, my uncles and all the elders, men and women danced to the song. Even Mbuya VaMandirowesa danced to it as well, her cracked bare feet kicking the dust.

We children all joined in till the battery was dead. The next day my father placed the battery in the sun and it gave a bit more energy and we danced some more until it died completely. By then, we had memorised the song and we sang it everywhere.

The meaning of the song carried a lot of pain for mbuya's heart. When the song was finished we sat down breathless and mbuya shook her head sadly. She reminded us that Salisbury was a jungle and people who went there, especially women, did not come back.

"Do not be like Nyika. He was like the dog that never came back when it chased after a rabbit, kwakaenda imbwa ndiko kwakaenda tsuro. If you are not careful, you will forget where you came from, the way Nyika did," mbuya said. Then we saw tears in her eyes and we did not know what words to console her. The name Nyikadzino always gave her a heavy heart. Nyika.

She said one day the white man's jungle was going to spit out Nyika and he was going to come back home in shame like a dog with a tail folded between his legs. By the time that happens, it would be too late. Mbuya would be dead and gone.

On her death bed, mbuya told my father that Nyika was still alive and one day, he would come home to see her grave. He did.

But by the time he came back, it was long after independence. Mbuya, sekuru, my father and many other relatives were already dead. Nyika came back to mourn at their graves. Why did he stay so long, only to come back after 30 years to paint their graves?

Babamunini Nyika was my father's youngest brother. He left the village in the late 1950s or early 1960s. He went to look for a job in Salisbury to pay for the hut tax, cattle and bicycle tax.

He also needed a few pounds to pay the bride price for a girl he loved in another village. For years mbuya and everyone thought he was in Salisbury, but later on, they discovered that Babamunini Nyika had moved to Blantyre, Malawi. He had done completely the opposite of what Malawian migrants to Zimbabwe did.

He stayed there for more than 30 years and during that time, mbuya lamented the loss her son.

Once a year Babamunini Nyika wrote to my father to say he was doing well as a successful businessman. He sent a photo of himself wearing a suit, his foot resting on a stool.

He was tall, dark and handsome with a moustache, a walking stick and a hat with a feather. The photo was framed nicely and it hung in our corrugated iron roofed house. Mbuya saw it once, shook her head, shed a few tears and then she would not look at it again.

By the time mbuya died, babamunini Nyika had stopped writing.

We did not believe that babamuni Nyika will ever come back. But one day he did come back. The year was 1989 and my mother was on her rare visits to Harare. She happened to be sitting alone in our Glen Norah B flat in Harare. There was a knock on the door. Two men stood outside, one younger and the other older, taller and skinny, wearing a suit. The younger man said he was an Air Zimbabwe employee and a friend of my brother.

He said the visitor had been flown in from Malawi and he did not know where to go. Since the visitor shared the same surname as my brother it made sense to bring him over.

My mother welcomed the visitor and they asked about each other's health. Then she recognised him, Nyikadzino, the lost one, muchoni. He cried and embraced her.

For years my mother told and retold the story of babamunini Nyika's day of return after his deportation from Malawi. She said, "Nyika came with nothing, akauya ari munhu, a human being with nothing to show for his 30 years in Malawi."

I met Babamunini Nyika only once after his return from Malawi during my visits to the village. Babamunini Nyika was different. He hated any cruelty to animals and made sure the entire village dogs were fed and not beaten or used for hunting the meat they did not eat.

Babamunini Nyika was always smartly dressed. On Sundays, he put on his suit and bow tie, went to church at St Columbus School and preached about repentance.

He often gathered wild flowers, put them in a cup and placed them on mbuya and sekuru's graves. He was mostly alone and lonely. Sometimes he told my mother that he missed his ordered life in Malawi. He woke up early, washed from a bucket, shaved and then he put on his green work overalls and went to the garden.

He spent the whole morning there growing vegetables and potatoes, coming back for tea around ten. He kept time.

After lunch, he took a siesta under the mango tree and listened to BBC World News on the transistor radio. When the radio batteries were gone, Babamunini still sat quietly under the mango tree, dreaming. Was he thinking of his lost loves back in Malawi?

He did not smoke or drink nor did he chase after any women. Varoora, the wives of our cousins, teased him and asked if they could give him a woman to keep him company. If he was too lazy to do anything with her, they said they could get him one who was already pregnant to spare him too much work!

But babamunini Nyika smiled gently and ignored them.

He did not talk about his experiences as a migrant in Malawi nor did he ever tell us why he was made persona non grata by President Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. There was no correspondence between him and the wife or the children he left back there. Up to this day, we do not know why he came back with nothing like that.

One rainy season, he went to visit our other relatives in Muzarabani up in the flood plains of the Zambezi River valley. While over there, he contracted malaria. Babamunini Nyikadzino died before they could take him to hospital. They buried him there. During my last visit to Muzarabani in March this year, I saw babamunini's grave for the first time.

It was a plain cement grave on a very dry patch, in a thorny bush next to the big baobab tree where sometimes elephants rub their necks in the heat.

What boggled our minds was why all those years working hard for a better life in Malawi, only to come back with nothing? He did not even bring an empty suitcase, so we could have said musuitcase kulibe chindu.

Mbuya wanted to protect us from urban modern day living. She knew that in the city we shall always struggle to make money.

As the jazz singer Bob Nyabinde said in one of his songs, we work so hard but in the end we come out with nothing, chabuda hapana.

Babamunini Nyika came back because the village was still there. But he failed to fit in. Perhaps he should have stayed in Malawi, if he could. The migration from the village to the city was bound to happen. As the elders die and many homes are slowly being deserted, we keep going to the jungles, kumasango around the world. Some of us may never come back to the village because there is nothing left.

We are caught in the law of the jungle that is called the city.

Daily we fight a war to find the meaning of life, the past, the village and the present. With the village dying slowly along with the traditional moral values we learnt, we continuously seek a stable cultural and spiritual balance between the modern and the old within ourselves.

The author is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and works as development consultant.

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