23 May 2010

When the King of Sungura Died by Murenga Joseph Chikowero

I almost laughed at my stupidity. How could I have missed the house all this time when it stood right here just off the gravel road? I had spent half the day driving around this village only for a little boy to stop and ask me what I was looking for. Yes, he knew the home I was looking for.

Just a few days before, I had convinced my editor that I was about to crack the mystery of the late singer’s family. For a whole month after King TJ, real name Tiyanjana Jimalo, the undisputed master of our Sungura music, died, no one heard anything about his family, in particular his wife and children, itself an unusual thing in our society where both official wives and small houses – the unofficial wives - and their children were known to quickly emerge from the woodwork and descend on the dead man’s estate like hungry hyenas. But here I was at the late singer’s mysterious rural home where I would pen the story that would make me famous.

This seeming absence of the late singer’s family had generated myths and even as I walked behind the little boy, several conspiracy theories still swirled in around our ghettoes where teary diehard fans played King TJ’s songs on massive ghetto-blasters and cried even harder. Even my own paper, The Town Crier, ran a story that the mysterious family had reportedly discarded the elegant coffin from the funeral home and then proceeded to secretly bury our musical king in a traditional Chewa mat. It was even said the burial was announced days after the event. They are hiding somewhere or busy taking back all the money to Malawi, a colleague said helpfully. Suddenly everyone became an expert on Chewa culture and its supposed mysteries.

Although The Town Crier had been in existence for over a hundred years already, it still shamelessly profited from sensational stories about certain people in our ghettoes that our government called aliens. And it was common knowledge that the late King TJ was of Malawian origin. Yes, one of those despicable Chewa-speaking-not-so-intelligent types who walked the whole length of the railway line from hunger-scoured Blantyre to our bounteous Harare. But because King TJ had strummed his way into our hearts over the years, we had conveniently forgotten that he was one of them.In a flash of inspiration, I had walked into my editor’s office and laid out my plan. I surprised even the veterans when a battered car was released for my special assignment. After three days of working my sources at three different drinking holes, I knew something that would knock the breath out of every resident of the city on Friday when our weekend edition hit the streets. Someone knew where King TJ’s wife was hiding, clearly distressed and in mourning still. And yes, my name would be perched up there at the very top of the coveted front page when our famous Friday edition hit the streets. My fame was guaranteed. It wouldn’t matter that I was still a cub reporter.

Perhaps sensing the possibility of a free meal, the little boy who had eventually led me to this home was about to accompany me all the way into the widow's spacious sitting room when I shooed him away. In my excitement I considered giving him my black golf cap as compensation for his unsolicited efforts but remembered that it wasn't everyday that I managed to acquire a new golf cap. In any case I was already seeing myself as the new Tiger Woods of the investigative desk at The Town Crier. And Tiger Woods must always wear his cap of power.

With this story I would wave goodbye to the half-life of the trainee journalist. The cub journalist’s life fitted me as a stiff cowhide might fit a weary sleeper. What sane person could enjoy attending staid council meetings where old men in colonial-style suits still went through the motions of working for the city’s residents and congratulated each other as they passed resolution after resolution even as piles of uncollected garbage threatened to spill into their very meeting chambers? Until my luck turned three days ago, Nakai, my fiancĂ©e, had even hinted I had begun to walk like one of those ancient councillors. In fact I have no respect for those old bastards at all. If I had my way I would bind those stinking thieves hand and foot and drag them along our potholed roads to the courts. Who could respect grey-haired men who still dyed their hair pitch-black and wanted us all to imagine they were still sprightly young men? Anyway, here was my chance to make a clean break. I wouldn't even have to buy that chain-smoking editor a drop of beer to be confirmed as a substantive reporter with my own telephone line, my own computer with a secret password and probably even a new cellphone.

I surveyed the scene one more time: Here was one of those African rural homes that don’t make it into tourist brochures because tourists reportedly want to see only round, grass-and-stick huts that made you wonder how people get inside them let alone stretch out and sleep. I wouldn’t have been disappointed to spend my last years here with Nakai – and a fair sprinkling of doting grandchildren. Then I snapped back to reality, scared by the very idea of imagining Nakai, that buxom black beauty, as a grandmother. Before me was this simple but royal homestead. Even with the faded light blue paint, it wasn't hard to imagine our late king of Sungura music cooling off here on the odd midweek day when he wasn't booked to perform in one of our city’s ubiquitous nightclubs where minimum-wage factory workers lucky enough to have jobs still mingled with nouveau riche roadside fuel dealers and danced their sorrows away with startling vigour. Occasionally, these revellers’ tragicomic adventures made it into our Friday edition especially if one of them fainted or even died on the dance floor from sheer exhaustion.

When I saw the late King TJ’s widow come out to greet me I almost whipped out my prized Nikon camera but quickly scolded myself for such a hasty thought. Nothing says “amateur” louder than a journalist who rattles his source with an unexpected flash of the camera. You always got a better story if you kept your cool and let your news source relax. Let him unwind, stretch out his legs and if possible, take a long pull of something mildly alcoholic. That’s what they still taught at the Polytechnic where I had graduated only a year before.

I quickly stuffed my baseball cap under my armpit while simultaneously extending my right hand towards the widow. I made a point to hold my own right hand near the wrist, the way you see our elders do at sombre ceremonies where everyone speaks in deliberate near-whispers. A light brown palm was deposited inside my large dark brown one and I shook it firmly as our society expected of murume chaiye, a real man. A real man didn’t shake hands with a woman, no matter who she was. A real man seized a woman’s limp hand a shook it vigorously two or three times before releasing it. I did my best not to look at the person at the other end of the hand for tradition dictates that he who has been bereaved cannot be looked straight in the eye. I was very satisfied with my familiarity with these rituals and for a second I wished there was a third person watching at a distance, ideally with a Nikon camera.

“Please come in mukuwasha,” she said, addressing me as her son-in-law as often happens in such situations. “We can't stand in this roasting sun like this,” the woman added as she turned and headed towards the open doorway of the sitting room.

Even without looking her in the eye, it wasn’t difficult to notice that she was wearing a bright crimson dress and nothing at all on her head, hardly the appearance of a woman who had just lost a famous husband. But who knew with these aliens, these Malawians? Everything they did was so secretive. I cast the thought aside and settled more comfortably in the modest but neat couch. No prominently displayed photos of King TJ anywhere. But rural people do not always display family pictures, I cautioned myself.

“Please sit down mukuwasha,” a thin voice was saying though I had already chosen a spot for myself.

No matter what I did these days, I always found myself taking a seat that faced the door, a result of reading American detective novels where the hero sometimes surprised the villain with a shot fired from the hip.

Once we were both seated, I rose again to shake her hand. Again she surrendered her palm and I held it and shook it once or twice the way our elders do when expressing sadness over another’s loss. “Aah, these stories of destruction, mother,” I muttered just above a whisper, voice properly tuned to capture what I hoped was true sadness on my part. Although I sometimes pretended to be a city slicker those days, I still remembered that death was never mentioned by name in the face of the bereaved.

“Hmm, they were seen, my son,” she responded after a reasonable pause. I eased back into my couch and the woman did the same, elaborately gathering the hems of her ankle-length dress to cover even her naked feet. It was obvious she had welcomed hundreds of friends and relatives who had travelled great distances to share her loss of a husband.

After a dignified silence, the woman cupped her palms, clapped twice and went out towards the grass-thatched kitchen. I listened to the retreating footfalls and laid down my camera bag. It was important to appear relaxed. And appearances were everything. Or, as one of my favourite advertising slogans said, “What’s power without control?” Soon the woman returned, slightly bent at the waist on account of a heavy tray of food that she was carrying.

“Eat, my son,” she said after laying her burden on a small table that she pushed towards my feet. “I’m sure you have come from afar,” she added, her way of asking who I was.

I personally preferred mukuwasha but I didn’t protest. But I wasn’t going to dig into her food before she knew who she was dealing with. I carefully opened my left shirt pocket to produce a neat, laminated ID, the kind that every journalist at The Town Crier flashed all over town. For a brief moment, I glanced at my intelligent smile on the card. That was my power smile. It was something between a smirk and a proper smile. Nakai thought I had just bared only my upper teeth which made me look like a walrus. But I was convinced Nakai had become jaded by the hustle of the city. Let me observe this true African woman here who, despite the untold wealth of her late husband, had remained anchored in our timeless rural culture, even if she was probably a Malawian like her late husband. I tilted my face a little just to confirm that she was impressed.

“Oh, you are with The Town Crier? What brings you here?” she asked quickly in genuine, pleasant surprise.

Forgetting tradition for the second time that afternoon, I couldn't help observing that some of her front teeth had an irregular arrangement which probably accounted for the sweet, hissing sounds that emerged each time she spoke. It also made me wish we were not talking about death because I would have wanted her to see her smile.

“Yes. I’m interested in the story of your late husband,” I remembered her question. “People out there in the city are very curious about how he lived, you know, his private life and perhaps the circumstances of his death,” I said, dipping a spoon into the mound of rice. "The story behind your husband, you know, everyone in town wants to hear it from someone who actually served him sadza and chicken. When he was home, that is,” I added rather unwisely and immediately regretted it.

But she didn't seem to mind at all. I began to eat in earnest. She seemed to be wrestling with her thoughts for a while. Like a charming investigator, I enjoyed my food as if I had forgotten all about my assignment. I crushed a chicken thighbone, closed one eye as I sucked at its sweet marrow, sweet as only a rural “roadrunner” chicken’s marrow can be.

To the widow I said, “Everyone is going to read this story and of course there will be a picture of you, perhaps on the front page itself. In fact I will tell the page designers to use two pictures.”

“Yes,” she turned towards the window for a moment and the afternoon sunlight poured across her face.

I made a mental note to ask her to sit on that couch and pose just like that for a photo that would rule the front page come Friday. Our ghetto readers love sad, beautiful widows. This would be the story for me and I made up my mind that I would fight the various editors to have them spare the front page the usual political drivel for just one day. What kind of reader would choose the story of a politician in a British colonial-style suit officially opening a toilet at a rural growth point over a still-beautiful widow of our late king of Sungura music telling her own side of the story to a rising eagle of investigative journalism?

Eventually I told her about my tape recorder and she agreed to let me record the interview. In due course we began and true to my word, I restricted my questions to purely domestic aspects of her late husband.

Later I took out my prized Nikon camera.

“One last question. Exactly how did your husband die? You know how people talk these days. Every “long illness” is taken to mean only one thing as if people didn’t die after suffering long illnesses before AIDS was poured down the well,” I said, proud to have used a phrase from one of the late King TJ’s songs.

“No, my husband died after a very short time. You know, by the time we arranged to take him to the hospital, I was even scared of feeling his heartbeat because I looked at those unblinking eyes and knew the worst had happened.”

I scribbled furiously into my notebook even as the tape recorder rolled quietly.

“So these stories that he got paralysed while... uh... you know, on top of another woman and what not... are totally false?” I asked, both ashamed of myself and yet proud that for the first time I had actually mentioned sexual activity with a woman who wasn’t Nakai.

“What are you talking about, my son?” she shot back immediately.

I stared at her like a rabbit frozen by the full glare of a car’s lights.

“It will be two years come next week but I still remember everything clearly. My husband fell off my neighbour’s rooftop. I was passing him the bundles of thatch grass so I should know.”

My shoulders sagged. I stared at a spot between my feet for what felt like hours. So I had driven these two hundred miles into this God forsaken place to hear the story of a villager who had fallen off a rooftop some two years ago? Then an idea hit me.

“Do you have a black dress and doek?”

“Of course,” she said, already on her feet.

In a few minutes she was back in the traditional black mourning dress complete with a doek, the headtie that our society still expected our women to wear at relevant occasions. I furiously snapped six or seven pictures of this village woman. Perhaps she knew she would be the late King TJ’s widow for as long as someone called my editor to say my story was one giant hoax. But I was beyond caring. One widow is as good as any. After all, this woman has also lost a husband.

“Do make a point to buy the Friday paper. Your picture will be on the front page,” I said, gathering the tools of my trade.

The woman looked at me the way Judas Iscariot might have looked at Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. We knew each other’s secrets and the sensation was sweeter than the dripping white honeycomb that I used to eat as a herd-boy right at the beehive even as furious bees swarmed around my head.

By the time I reached my battered car by the roadside, I had what I thought was a good plan. By the time the first phone call questioning the truth of my story reached my editor, I would be a legend. I would have my moment of glory. There was always the possibility of resigning before they actually fired me and then use the resignation package to start a new life in Botswana with Nakai. Or just become a living legend in the pubs by embellishing and pushing this story as my very own imaginative invention of the life and times of King TJ. That way I would only need to stop combing my hair, design and wear my own clothes, carry a large bag full of old books everywhere to be perceived as yet another victim of corporate and government inflexibility. Yes, there was a good possibility of free beer down the road from an ever-expanding circle of admirers.

“Your Nike cap is nice, mukoma.”

I almost jumped out of my skin. It was that boy again, lurking in the evening gloom. All this time I had been told by my own mother that I am an only child but now this silly boy was unilaterally declaring himself my small brother!
“In what grade are you?” I asked rather pointlessly.

“Not grade, mukoma. Form Three. Things are not always the way they look. That’s the kind of cap that Tiger Woods wears, right mukoma?”

It was really Nakai who had paid for the cap but in a flash, my Tiger Woods power cap was flying towards the little boy who caught it by sticking a finger right under it. I didn’t want to think about it. I started the car and looked out one more time. The little boy had decided the best way to wear my Tiger Woods cap was backwards.

“Greet them in the city for us, mukoma,” he said with a brief wave and began to walk towards a narrow footpath, a self-satisfied whistle that sounded oddly like one of King TJ’s hit songs trailing him.

I stuck my head outside and listened some more. Yes, that was it; one of those intoxicating Chewa songs that drive our non-Chewa people crazy without ridding them of their prejudice.

When the King of Sungura Died was written by Murenga Joseph Chikowero.

Copyright © Murenga Joseph Chikowero 2010.

Murenga Joseph ChikoweroMurenga Joseph Chikowero is a descendant of great Chief Chiwashira of whom many legends are told. Joseph was born in 1977 at the peak of the war in Mhondoro-Ngezi, Zimbabwe. Because of the intensity of the armed conflict, his family temporarily relocated to Harare’s Geneva Section of Highfield high density suburb where his father worked for a cotton ginnery.

He attended schools in both Mhondoro-Ngezi and Guruve in the extreme north of the country. He credits his interest in the power of the word, whether written or spoken, to his Grades 3-6 teacher, Mrs. Ncube. Later, he moved to Harare for high school.

At the University of Zimbabwe, Joseph had the unique opportunity of working with talented writer-scholar-philosophers such as the famed T.K. Tsodzo, Anthony Chennells, Maurice Vambe, Tim McLoughlin and Memory Chirere, among others. He graduated with an Honours degree in English before finishing an MA in English in 2002.

He taught Literature in English and English Language in high school and worked for the private media before joining the Zimbabwe Open University, teaching English and Communication studies.

Presently, Joseph is in the US where he is studying for a PhD in African Literature and Film at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Among a host of influences, Joseph cites Dambudzo Marechera, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Phaswane Mpe as a key sources of inspiration.

Joseph has a novel in progress which explores growing up in the 80s and 90s in Zimbabwe. His stories seek to pry open the silences of Zimbabwe’s post-independence history and the place of the individual and her community in what is often a violent situation. He believes there is enough talent in the ‘lost generation’ that was displaced by various forces in Zimbabwe’s recent past to produce the new Dambudzo Marechera.

Joseph can be contacted at chikowero@gmail.com


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