5 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Dancing to Free the Soul


"Sis, do not invite me again to a party where the majority of people are married couples, educated people, regular church goers or rich people," said Piri as we left a party on our cousin's farm in Macheke.

I asked her why and she said, "These people are not happy. They no longer know how to dance and have fun together. Kusungikana kunge varungu."

Piri has this way of making assumptions about people or situations. How would she know whether people were not having fun just by looking them? She hardly knew anyone there anyway.

"Is that true about the people you just mentioned?" I asked as we made our way to Marondera, Hwedza Mountains then crossed Save River on the way to the village. Piri did not reply immediately. She was busy reaching out into her handbag to grab one beer. She had done it again; hiding and taking away three or more beers when leaving a party.

I have seen this happen before, here and even in the Diaspora. You invite people to a party. They come with nothing, not even flowers or a box of chocolates or something. They cannot say they have nothing because even a bottle of peanut butter or packet of beans will do. But our people bring nothing. They will sit there (and not even dance) drink everything, soft drinks, beer, wine, spirits and they will eat everything available. They also have this habit of opening a bottle of beer, drink a quarter or half of it then leave it because it is now too warm for them or they simply forget they had a beer in their hand. So they get another one and drink it the same way.

And when they leave, they want to loot your granary. I gave Piri a questioning disapproving eye for taking the beers from the party. I do not know how many times I have tried to educate her on this.

She quickly launched into lecturing me as she often does when she is in the wrong. "Aiwa Sis, do not give me that ziso. There was so much beer there. Only a few men were drinking and the women were not drinking. Don't you know that there are two things most women will not be seen doing in public? Drinking beer and dancing. They are not as free as our mothers and grandmothers. So, what else could I do except drink for the rest of the women and the absent men? This makes sense to me. Ndizvo zvinotove nemusoro izvozvo. Pity I did not have a big bag. I could have fitted at least six bottles in here instead of just four."

I was not going to win this argument, so I let it pass. I then repeated my question about people she singled out as no longer having fun, meaning the married couples, and educated, rich and serious church going people. Speaking slowly, like she was a teacher, Piri explained that these people are either too educated or too rich to be seen dancing because Christianity has tied them down to notions of rigid, non-dancing good civilized behaviour. Because they not only lost the ability to dance and have fun, they no longer have the rhythms.

This means, a woman or a man without rhythm is likely to struggle when asked to perform other duties related to the expression of love in circumstances elsewhere within marriage or without. Hmmm. While I was still trying to understand where I actually fit in to Piri's assertion, she turned on the music to play her favourite CD by the Congolese guy Sam Mangwana.

Maybe Piri was right. Our grandfathers and grandmothers were socially free and happier in their communal expression of dance than we have become. Dancing and singing for fun or during rituals was always part of us back in the village. I have happy memories dancing back then. During all night ceremonies in mbuya's kitchen hut, we did not sleep at all. Sometimes we children sneaked into the adult crowd and watched them dance, each one to their own rhythms. Mbuya played hosho and mbira while Sekuru and the uncles played the drum. We used to hear them sing songs like "Sara mugomo wave wega wega", (you are left alone in the jungle), "Mbavarira woye woye woye" or "Nyuchi dzandiruma", (I have been stung by the bees).

They scuffled, stamped and made little steps. Poly-rhythmic, the tempo got higher and faster. Whirling, shuffling steps in short movements they moved their shoulders and hips. With smooth fluidity, the bodies moved like there were no bones left in them. Shoulders, chest, pelvis, arms, legs moved with different rhythms to the singing and drumming, sometimes combining or blending one or two rhythms in their movements. They could even switch backwards, forwards in between rhythms and never without missing the continuous movements. Sometimes the men got very excited and moved around jumping and leaping when the dance was performed outside.

They danced to reach the skies, some of them reaching an ecstatic seizure like they were possessed. At times they all did a synchronised dance, as if they have been trained, the men on one side, the women on the other. Then they met in the middle. Or they all stood in a big circle and two people danced in the middle with everyone singing and clapping. We giggled when the men met in the middle with the women thrusting their bodies forward, joining a little in middle performing something like what we used to call hwishu.

We often disappeared quickly from the adult ceremonies and went out dancing in the moonlight, dancing the same way the adults did, with the older children performing the dances even better and with more energy. Some rhythms were meant for boys only because they were vigorous and masculine, as if they were preparing for war. Some girls dancing were sometimes quite gentle and feminine, like chinungu, a dance that worked very well if you had a more than average big bottom. I remembered how much dance was spontaneous and how it lifted our spirits, helping us to connect with body and with others spiritually.

On the way back from the village to Harare last Sunday, Piri and I stopped at the bar in Hwedza, as we always do. The bar lady (who has problems in smiling to customers) sat on a stool next to the refrigerator full of soft drinks. You could not easily get to her because she was barred inside a four corner large cage protecting her from drunks and others who might want to grab her money or the beer. Customers gave her money through the gaps between iron bars.

In front of her was the big deep freezer full of beer, all kinds of beer. Very cold. Right in the corner was the stereo system and the speakers were placed above our heads. Another speaker was above the entrance. Music surrounded us. Three men sat on the stools next to the bar, drinking beer. On the bench facing the bar were three or four other men with dry lips, thirsty for a beer or a scud of Chibuku, the thick commercial village-like village brew. They had the picture of those village men with no money at all but they come to the bar, hoping someone will allow them a sip from their scud. They looked with longing eyes to the men sitting on stools and drinking cold beer.

Piri went straight to the bar lady and ordered a big bottle of Castle. She did not pay. She joined three guys playing tsoro at a table in the corner of the bar. The tsoro was a board game, or draught, where they were using bottle tops following the squares on a piece of card board. The men had their heads down, concentrating. When one guy lost the game he got up surrendering and Piri immediately sat on his chair and started playing tsoro with an older man. One young guy stood behind her and gave advice. I stood in a corner and enjoyed my mabhanzi and fanta watching them. They talked loudly and laughed. After a short while Piri won and they all clapped hands.

At that moment, an old song by Paul Matavire came on. The song is about a man called Paurosi, who moves from Masvingo to Gokwe and falls in love with a married woman. In revenge, the woman's husband bewitches Paurosi and his stomach swells up. This is a lesson for Paurosi, that in Gokwe, even if you see a beautiful woman in a short skirt, it does not mean she is single and fair game. You do not touch other people's wives.

Paurosi sings about his misfortune as he lies very ill on his death bed, reminiscing about his life back in Masvingo and the advice he got from his grandmother about how one should always be wary of married women. Paurosi sings: "I am dying from a swollen pregnant stomach. I am dying from a disease that has not been known before. My life has ended too soon. Ndofa ndichiita sendine mimba, kugwara chigwere chisina kumbogwagwa. Gwendo guya gwagugwa negugwe."

Then Piri started dancing, just like that. She knew the whole song by heart. The song was a sad story and yet incredibly and beautifully poetic. One of the best songs I have heard in Shona in the Masvingo dialect. But it was not only the song that got to me, it was the dance. Everyone in the bar, even the bar lady, danced following the beat and singing along with Matavire. It was a good 10 minutes of the song and Piri was right there in the middle of the men, dancing. One woman alone, one ari ega.

I joined in a bit as you do when the tempo builds up. At the end of the song, I shouted three scuds of Chibuku for the men with dry lips, another pint for Piri and a fanta for myself without buns. A party had started and two hours later, we were still in Hwedza, happy and roasting meat, in dance, conversation and laughter. To say thank you, to the late Paul Matavire, the visually-impaired poet and singer of all time, we left two more scuds for the men whose lips were no longer dry. A dollar per scud was not much to share a dance with strangers. We left Hwedza towards sunset. Driving along that strip of road past Imire Game Park can be quite hazardous if there are lots of kombis and buses. Fortunately, it was not too busy. Piri sat next to me drinking her fifth or sixth bottle of beer.

"A . . . ya! Nhasi ndanakirwa! Ndatamba," Piri said, meaning she really enjoyed herself dancing. She took another swig of beer and bit into the boiled maize cob we had cooked back in the village. Piri has front teeth now. Our cousin Reuben in Australia sent money and we bought her some two missing teeth. These days Piri does not hesitate to take a good bite of corn, meat, mangoes or anything. She is looking beautiful. Smooth dark brown, totally flawless skin. She does not use any skin cleansers or toners.

Her long eyelashes are natural. But she does not know that so I do not tell her, in case anoita manyemwe, she might get too vain. Watching Piri and all those guys in that bar dancing, I had felt a little inadequate in my dance.

Yet, even if I say so myself, I am not a bad dancer. And I admit that I am one of those people now caught in a state of rhythmic confusion or no rhythm at all. We do not know what tune to dance to because we tried to forget the village dances, embraced the western waltzing for a while then came back to the village ones again. So we go to parties and do not dance.

Yet we can still mix past and present rhythms, tunes and movements in order to find joy out of whatever movements might emerge.

We grew up dancing to the drum and learnt stories through song. This was one of our ancient art form. Our everyday life activities were structured that way. Music was not something outside us. It was part of who we were. I recall mbuya singing when she swept the village compound and I listened to my mother singing lullabies to get my little sister sleeping on her back.

The elders sang and danced during communal weeding, panhimbe and also at the millet thrashing, pajakwara and during religious and funeral ceremonies. In those days, dance was an offering to the ancestors and a surrender of the body and soul to Mwari, the creator. Sometimes I long for that time when the voices of the people back in the village echoed through the hills late into the night.

Coming together like that to the beating of the drum gave us space to feel a sense of belonging, connection with each other in the collective rhythm of life. The drumming spoke and guided the dancing performances bringing in non verbal cues and a language unspoken.

A language so spontaneous, and yet so strong in keeping us together through dance, song and laughter. Looking back, I think the elders were happy dancing along together like that, carrying out the tradition of their ancestors during celebrations and family rituals. They expressed our communal desires, values, collective creativity and memory. They sang and danced to the songs deeply rooted in the life experiences of our people.

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