13 July 2011

Far From Home by Na'ima B. Robert (Book Excerpt)

‘A prince is a slave when far from his kingdom.’
- Shona proverb

Chapter 4


The next morning, we all slept later than usual. The heat of the morning had risen and I woke up hot and damp, my mouth parched. My dreams had been very vivid: I was looking for Nhamo in a burning field, and I could hear the sound of angry men’s voices. Then I saw him walking ahead of me and I ran after him, the earth around me black and smoking, but I could not catch up with him. The smoke began to sting my eyes and I couldn’t see any more and when I woke up, my eyes were sticky with unshed tears.

I sat up slowly and held my head in my hands. What had the dream meant? Unlike Amai, I never dreamed in prophecies, seeing the shape of things to come. My dreams were always simple, forgettable, and I hardly ever thought about them in daylight. But that morning, I could still smell the acrid smoke, the prickle of burnt grass under my feet, the black soot coating my legs. And my voice as I called Nhamo to wait, wait, wait for me. He had not looked back, walking on until he disappeared from view, leaving me rubbing my eyes with soot-covered hands, making black marks on my face.

I reached over and soothed my burning throat with water from a calabash. I could hear Amai sweeping outside so I washed my face and quickly went out to greet her, remembering for the first time that we had not spoken about her dream.

But, as I rushed outside, I heard the sound of a bicycle bell and rubber tyres, soft on the fine dust of the footpath. Amai heard it too and straightened up, her hand on her back, one hand shading her eyes from the mid-morning sun that played in the dust.

It was a messenger from Fort Victoria.

“Mukai, mukai!” he shouted, his voice scarring the sleeping silence of the homestead.
Amai glared at him. “Is this any way to greet people?” She clicked her teeth. “Some people have forgotten everything their parents taught them!”

The young man was suddenly ashamed. He lowered his head and said, humbly, “Please forgive me, Amai, I forgot myself. I have a message for the chief from the District Commissioner.”

Amai motioned to me and I went to fetch my father who was sleeping at MaiZiyanai’s house. Standing outside at a respectful distance, I called to him.

“Baba! There is a man here to see you. He says he has a message from Fort Victoria.” Baba emerged, tucking his waist wrapper round his middle. He nodded his thanks and walked slowly to where the young man was waiting, in the middle of the clearing.

The man seemed to have remembered his manners and clapped his hands respectfully, greeting Baba formally as was our custom.

“The District Commissioner says that you are to assemble the members of the dare council here this afternoon. He has very important news and he does not want to have to go to each homestead one by one. So you must all come here and he will speak to you all.”

My father looked offended. “What is it he wants to talk about? Can he not speak to me in private? I am, after all, the leader of my people. If he has anything to tell them, he can tell them through me.”

The messenger looked embarrassed. “Actually,” he confided, “it was the deputy commissioner who insisted that he speak to all of you. Baas Thompson wanted to discuss with you privately but Baas Watson said, no, these native chiefs must not get too big for their boots. He wants to speak to the people directly.”

“So, Watson is coming, not Thompson?”

The messenger nodded.

I felt a sense of foreboding when I heard that. I could not understand why. I could see that Baba was not pleased, as he pressed his lips together and clenched his fists around his walking stick. But what could he do?

“Tell him they will be here,” he said at last, and his shoulders sagged, just a little. The messenger thanked him gratefully and ran back to pick up his bicycle. Baba turned and looked at us and the other wives and children that had assembled.

“We should prepare ourselves for bad news,” he said shortly and turned to MaiZiyanai, suddenly irritated. “What are you waiting for, woman?” he barked. “Prepare my tea and my bath!” And he stalked off, to brood over the meeting to come.

That afternoon, the men began arriving from the surrounding homesteads. My brothers had all been sent to call the men of the other households, to summon them to the meeting with Deputy District Commissioner Watson. So they came, feet dusty, beads and snuff bags slung over their shoulders, shiny, worn jackets that were too small or too old to be worn by their sons in town, dusty overalls hanging from the bony shoulders of old men with grizzled beards.

They all sat in a circle, some lost in their own thoughts, others talking with their friends in low voices, all of them waiting, waiting. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Babamunini sitting with Farai and Nhamo. But they were lost in conversation and I could not catch Nhamo’s eye.

We, the women of the chief’s family, waited inside, hoping to hear the news from Fort Victoria. The heat of the morning had ripened and swelled in the homestead, stifling the breeze, the air thick and heavy with the smell of wood smoke and wild flowers.

Then they came, Deputy District Commissioner Ian Watson and his Africans from Fort Victoria. The younger children stared open-mouthed at the glinting steel of the guns the men carried, at the hardness in their faces. These were not our uncles, these men, though their skin was like ours. They were from the west of the country and they spoke Ndebele, rather than Karanga. It was a favourite tactic of the white man: to divide and rule. In our case, they had succeeded, for we knew from bitter experience that the guns they carried were not just for show.

In the middle of the group of men came Deputy Commissioner Watson, his blue eyes cold, his hands behind his back, holding his sjambok. He nodded towards my father who came forward to greet him. But Watson simply stared at Baba’s outstretched hand, then looked away. I understood immediately: Watson was one of those varungu who did not touch Africans. Everything about him - his imperious stare, the straightness of his back, the way he carried his head – spoke of arrogance and entitlement, and my nerves bristled to see my father snubbed by someone less than half his age.

Then, he cleared his throat and spoke, his voice clear and formal, as if he was making a speech he had rehearsed. “It is my duty to inform you that, as you already know, a law was passed by the government in Salisbury in 1952. That law was the Native Land Husbandry Act and, until now, the government has been slow to implement it. All that has changed, thanks to more dedicated administrators becoming involved.” He looked around at us all and smiled briefly. “Now, you all know that the government in Rhodesia has tried to treat you people fairly and has looked after you. In fact, the Native Land Husbandry Act is yet another way of the government showing how much it cares for you Africans. This law will allow you to learn how to farm properly, instead of keeping too many cattle, cutting down all the trees and allowing the soil to become eroded. The white men who will be given this land you are on now will work for the good of the country: they will plant tobacco and cotton – cash crops – and they will keep cattle for export...”

Suddenly, he stopped and looked at the sea of uncomprehending faces. His face flushed red and his blue eyes flashed as he snarled, “Waste of bloody time, talking to you people. I told Thompson but he doesn’t listen...”

His African assistant turned to him. “Should I translate, sir?”

“Ag, don’t bother, Petros!” Watson barked. “What’s the bloody point? They won’t understand, no matter how much you try and explain. These people haven’t got a bloody clue – can’t you see from their faces? Just tell them that they’ve got two weeks to get their things together – the trucks will be here to move them to the Native Reserve. They’ll soon learn that there is more to life than dancing and drinking beer, eh?” He chuckled and Petros laughed with him, showing all his teeth.

He then turned to face the men who had been following his exchange with Watson and, with exaggerated formality, he began to give a speech of his own: “Baas Watson came here today to tell you that this land is going to be reallocated, according to the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1952. You have two weeks to arrange your affairs before the trucks come to take you and your families to your new homes.”

Baba simply stared at Petros, disbelieving, but Babamunini and the other elders were not so calm. Several of them began to shout out in protest, waving their sticks at Petros, spitting on the ground. Amai and I exchanged glances. What was going to happen?

“New home?” Babamunini barked, his brow creased, his eyes angry. “What do you mean ‘new home’? This is our land and the land of our forefathers! This is where our ancestors are buried, where we have sown our seeds, where we raise our children. This is our home – and it has always been!”

Another elder spat in the dust and glared at Petros: “We will not let our land be taken from us! How dare you come here with such abominable speech?” The other men all nodded in agreement. An older man, his mouth showing more gaps than teeth, struck the ground with his walking stick and said, “How can they tell us to leave our own land? Do the spirits not expect us to honour them here? If we leave, who will perform the rituals to honour the dead? No! To abandon our ancestral lands would be to invite the wrath of the ancestors upon us!”

Petros dropped his official demeanor and looked contemptuously at them all. “Do you really think that your talk of spirits and ancestors will change the white man’s mind? Look, you are on good land here and the varungu want it for their farms, to grow cash crops like tobacco and cotton...” The men’s voices rose again, almost drowning Petros’ voice but he continued, ignoring them. “And they have prepared another place for you to live just south of here. You have two weeks to pack up and leave.”

This resulted in a frenzy of shouts, accusations and choked insults and curses. The group of men seethed, as one body, arms raised, fists clenched. Several carried deadly knobkerries, others held their walking sticks in both hands. I saw the glint of a panga blade. The African messengers from Fort Victoria looked at each other fearfully, unsure of what to do. Watson frowned, and shouted at Petros.

“Hey, keep these natives under control, man!” But it was too late for Petros to attempt to assert himself. Garikai and Nhamo’s uncle had grabbed hold of his khaki shirt and were shaking him, shouting and slapping his face while he looked wildly around for help. But the others were also under attack as the angry men went to vent their anger on the colonial servants. The homestead echoed with raised voices, and scuffling feet churned the dust. For a moment, it looked as if the men were going to take the messengers and beat them senseless.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Babamunini and Nhamo start towards DC Watson. He saw them coming and, with a curl of his lip, he reached down and drew out his gun.

Chapter 5


Deputy Commissioner Watson fired his gun into the air, once, twice, then pointed it at Babamunini. Immediately, the men fell back and the messengers, panting with fear and sweating, managed to free themselves and reach for their own weapons. The metal of their guns glinted in the sunlight as they pointed them at my father, my uncle, my brothers, my beloved.

Petros, coughing and spluttering, struggled to retain his dignity. Watson gave him a hard look and barked, “That’s why you’ll never get that promotion, Petros. You can’t even control your own people! You’re useless, man, pathetic!”

Petros turned to glare at the villagers. “You are all mad if you think you will get away with this! I am a representative of the Queen of England! And I will be respected!”

But Babamunini would not back down. Breathless, his chest glistening with sweat, he snarled, “You are nothing but a sell-out! A despised servant who cannot even share a cup with the white baas you love so much!”

Petros ignored him and turned to Baba at last and said, with exaggerated courtesy, “May I remind you that you are a servant of Her Majesty, the Queen of England and that, by law, you must obey our orders?” His voice took a vicious turn. “And remember, the only reason that you are still the chief is that your grandfather made the wise decision to comply with the varungu. Otherwise, you would have found yourself with nothing: no wives, no children, and no land. Not even a badza to call your own. Remember that! You owe your allegiance to the queen in England now, the one who pays for your snuff.”

All eyes were on Baba, waiting for him to tell this bush pig to go back to his mother’s womb, to assert his authority. But Baba just stood there, clenching and unclenching his fists, and the moment passed. A movement rippled through the group of men; a slumping of shoulders, a heaving of chests, a shaking of heads. And a new look of disdain flooded their eyes when they looked at Baba, as emasculated as a castrated bull. The defiant, aggressive atmosphere dissipated as my father withstood the disappointed looks of the people he was meant to lead.

Petros savoured the moment, and then turned away, scornfully. “You may go, all of you!” he called out. “And remember, two weeks and the trucks will be here to take you to your new home.”

The men filed away, murmuring, casting sidelong glances at Baba as they left. Soon, the clearing was almost empty. Only Baba, Babamunini, my brothers and Nhamo remained, as Watson, Petros and the others prepared to leave.

Watson, putting away his revolver turned to Petros and said, “Hey, Petros, remember what I told you back in Fort Vic? I want a girl to come and work for me at my house...”

Just then, my youngest brother ran out into the clearing. I hissed for him to come back but he ignored me. I had no choice but to come out of Amai’s house after him. I felt all eyes on me as I scooped him up into my arms. Then I saw Petros grin and point towards me.

“What about her, baas? Would you like someone like her? She’s pretty, eh?”

Watson turned his head, then walked back to get a better look. His eyes swept over me, from my braided hair to my bare feet. Then, he smiled, a smile that reminded me of the crocodiles that wait for their prey on the riverbank, waiting, half-asleep, until a mother turns her back. It made my blood rush to my face. And then, to make it worse, he actually spoke to me.

“Come here, girl,” he called, beckoning me.

I faltered and looked at Baba. Did I really have to do what this white man said? Baba nodded his head stiffly and his eyelid flickered. He put out his hand and I walked to where he was standing. Protectively, he put his hand lightly on my shoulder. But by now, Watson was loping towards me, his eyes never leaving my face. Baba drew me closer to him as Watson approached but, without so much as looking at my father, Watson simply tapped him lightly on the chest with his sjambok – a silent command to stand back. Baba had no choice but to obey and leave me, his eldest daughter, standing in the middle of his homestead, being looked over by a white baas from Fort Victoria.

He stood close to me, so close that I could smell him: sweat, leather and ironed cotton. I could see the white hairs on his forearms, the cut on his left knee. Arms, knees, legs; this was all I saw because my head was bowed low with shame. He walked slowly round me, his eyes burning trails all over my body. He felt my upper arm for muscles. He slapped my right thigh with his sjambok. Inside, I was screaming. My heart rebelled against the indignity of being poked and prodded, like a cow that was about to be sold. And so, even though my face burned with shame and tears stung my eyes, I forced myself to look up, to look my tormentor in the face, to look into his blue, blue eyes with my blazing brown ones. I caught his eye as he stopped in front of me. He was so close that I could smell the tobacco on his breath. There was a moment of surprise that I dared to look him in the eyes, then the hint of a smile. A cruel, sadistic smile.

“I see we have a feisty one here, Petros,” he laughed, casting a glance over his shoulder. “But do you think she’s feistier than my horse, Milly?”

And, with that, he grabbed hold of my lower jaw and pulled my mouth open, pushing his grimy thumb between my teeth, feeling my molars.

I could taste him.

My stomach lurched and I gagged, tears stinging my eyes.

I did not think.

I bit down. Hard.

Watson let out a cry of pain and surprise and brought his other hand, balled into a fist, crashing into the side of my face. The pain exploded, muscle, bone, and I let go of his thumb and fell to the ground, gagging and retching. That was when Amai appeared. She flew to me, screaming, holding her protruding belly, and put her arms around me as I lay there in the dirt.

Just then, there was a strangled cry and Nhamo, all glowing skin, taut muscle and eyes spitting fire, leapt forward and slammed into Watson, knocking him off his feet. In seconds, he was straddling him in the dust, shouting curses, his huge fist exploding in Watson’s face. Blood spurted from Watson’s nose and soon, Nhamo’s hands were slippery with it.

It took a few moments for Watson’s men to realise what was happening and react. Some of them held their weapons up at Babamunini and my father while two of them tried to haul Nhamo off Watson who writhed, bleeding, on the floor of our homestead. But two men were not enough. After all, this was Nhamo, the boy who had defeated a lion single-handedly. Soon, five of them were struggling to hold Nhamo so that Watson could get up, staggering and holding his nose. I recoiled at the sight of him. His face was covered in blood and his blue, blue eyes glittered with rage as he pointed at Nhamo.

“You’ll regret this, you bloody kaffir!” he screamed, his voice twisted with pain and fury. “You dare to touch me? You dare to touch me?” And, forgetting about his own broken nose, he drew his fist back and swung it at Nhamo’s face. We heard the crack. We saw the blood. I watched as Nhamo struggled to free his arms, fought to protect his head, tried to duck the blows. But it was no good. All we could do was stand there and watch while Watson punched Nhamo again and again, all the while calling him a ‘filthy munt’ and a ‘dirty kaffir’. We could do nothing because the guns were ready now, the sticks raised.

When Watson was done, he hauled himself away, panting, sweat running down his face, mingling with his blood, holding a handkerchief to his nose. He made a motion with his hands and, in a flash, Petros and the other Africans fell on Nhamo with their sjamboks, those whips that draw blood on first contact. Blood spurted like flame lilies from Nhamo’s back as the men turned him over and whipped him again and again and again.

It was Petros who began the kicking. First his back, then his belly and then his head, as Nhamo tried to curl his body, as in his mother’s womb, to protect himself from their blows. Watson mopped his forehead and licked his bleeding lips as he watched, a look of satisfaction on his face.

Seeing my beloved like that, so helpless, I could not hold myself and I sprang forward and tried to pull one of the men off him but he knocked me down with one sweep of his arm.

Eventually, Watson called the men off. They gave Nhamo one last kick and then hauled him up to drag him to the waiting vehicle. I scrambled to my feet and ran towards them.

“Where are you taking him?” I screamed at them. The guns turned on me immediately and, although I felt a cold wave of dread wash over me, my blood was too hot. I pushed them aside and ran to Nhamo. His eyes were swollen shut, his face a mess of crimson blood and purple bruises.

“Nhamo, Nhamo,” I moaned, “what have they done to you, moyo wangu?”

Watson swung himself up into his truck and glared at the terrified huddle of men, women and children who had, by now, gathered in the homestead to witness the scene. He waved his gun over their heads.

“Let this be a warning to you all!” he shouted. “Don’t get any silly ideas in your heads. You have two weeks to get your things and move to the reserve. My men will be here to make sure that everything goes smoothly.”

“But where are you taking him?” I screamed again, hot tears searing my cheeks, my face contorted with anguish.

“As for this one, don’t you worry about him,” muttered Watson grimly. “He has assaulted one of Her Majesty’s officers. We’ll teach him a lesson he’ll never forget...” Then he turned the key and the engine roared. “Come on, you boys, checha, hurry up!”

And then they were gone, carrying my brave, foolish, bleeding Nhamo with them.

When they had gone, all that could be heard was the worried murmuring of the men, women and children and the high keening cry that came from my throat, as I sank to the ground and sat rocking, my hands pressed to the red soil where Nhamo’s blood bloomed in dark patches. I felt as if my heart had been torn in two.

I could not look in Baba’s eyes that night.

Far From Home is an excerpt from a book by Na'ima B. Robert.
(Frances Lincoln Children's Books, Aug, 2011)

Copyright © Na'ima B. Robert 2011.

Na’ima B. Robert, born Thando Nomhle McLaren, is descended from Scottish Highlanders on her father’s side and the Zulu people on her mother’s side. She was brought up in Harare, Zimbabwe, and graduated from the University of London. Her books include the popular From my sisters' lips, and teen novels, From Somalia, with love and Boy vs. Girl. Na'ima has also been published in The Times, The Observer and The Muslim Weekly as well as several online publications, including AfricaBe.com. She is married to a Ghanaian and has four children.


StoryTime: Weekly Fiction by African Writers.
All works published in StoryTime are
Copyrighted ©.
All rights reserved.