04 December 2011

Transitions by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

Portia was seven years old in 1979, the year her family made the move from Luveve to Killarney. The country was poised to transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. This was symbolised in the move her family was about to make from the all black township of Luveve in Bulawayo to what was then an all white suburb called Killarney. She listened with heightened curiosity as her father told their neighbour Bhudi Don of their impending move.

“Varungu are selling houses like loaves of fresh, hot Lobel’s bread, and moving out of the country!” He spoke with passion and an unrestrained joy which she had rarely seen. Her father was not given to extravagant shows of emotion. Exuberance was usually a sign of foolishness as far as he was concerned. “Yes!” He continued, undeterred by Budhi Don’s non committal silence. “Independence is on the horizon!” He practically shouted, a Kingsgate cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. Plumes of white smoke unfurled into the air.

Portia could smell the burning tobacco. This was the smell she associated with her father. It heralded his approach, or that he had just departed from a place. It was a good warning signal to cease all mischievous pursuits and avoid the stern look and shame-inducing tongue lashings.

“Ah ah, Mukoma Matthew! Don’t you know that these white people are just playing games? They will never let go of this country! Do you honestly believe that after all the years of toiling and building all this infrastructure they would just pack up and leave? OK, what about all the minerals of the Great Dyke and those huge farms in around Gatooma and Sinoia? They will never leave this land! You forget their favourite mantra: Rhodesians never die!” Bhudi Don uttered, and sucked his teeth, eliciting a protracted hissing sound of impotent anger. He continued to polish his lemon yellow Peugeot 404 vigorously, punishing it for the Rhodesians’ refusal to die.

Portia’s father pushed his hands deep into his safari shorts and looked at his slippered feet for a moment. “Listen Donald, right now as we speak, Muzorewa, the boys from ZANU and ZAPU and that one eyed goat Smith are all in Britain for a conference which will give us back our country! Besides I have already put a down payment for a house from one murungu man called Moody, who is leaving for South Africa in November. Yes, by December I am moving my family to the suburbs mfana’m.” His cigarette danced up and down to the oscillations of his voice.

Portia looked on at Budhi Don’s astonishment at her father’s pronouncement and felt a wave of excitement rippling through her body as she surreptitiously hovered behind the Peugeot from where she was eavesdropping.

Sure enough in early December, the Swift moving truck parked outside Portia’s gate one bright morning. It was the December school holidays and she was at home, assisting her mother and Sisi Emmah, their house helper, to pack boxes with kitchen utensils, pots and pans. The anticipation was palpable. Grace, Portia’s mother, was moving around with two year-old Nancy on her hip with an uncharacteristic alacrity, while Portia’s five year-old brother Daniel chanted “Shingirirayi, gadzirirayi, Zimbabwe ndeyedu! Baba murambe makashinga, Zimbabwe ndeyedu.” Portia wiggled her hips to the refrain of the popular freedom song which blasted out of their radio every evening from Radio Maputo in Mozambique — one of the countries from which the Zimbabwe war of independence was waged. She thought about the brave men in the song who were strong and preparing for the arrival of Zimbabwe and urging everyone else to prepare. Her family was preparing.

Portia stepped outside, carrying a cardboard box with plates and cups, into the blindingly bright sun. It was only ten o’clock and already the heat was suffocating. She squinted in the dazzling sunlight and noticed that all their neighbours were outside watching, as strong burly men hoisted sofas and beds into the truck. The houses were so close together that neighbours six houses on either side could observe all the activities and yell their best wishes across to them. The air was heavy with the smells of wood fires and paraffin mixed with roast maize, goat meat, and fried green vegetables. The aromas and odours intermingled to create a thick familiar blanket comforting only to those who lived in Luveve. Soon the vendors would do the rounds, selling roasted maize and meat from enamel dishes carried on their heads. “Umumbu lapha!” the call would ring out in the smoke filled air, and people would amble to their gates to purchase warm cobs of honey-coloured maize.

Suddenly Portia felt sad and apprehensive. She thought of her friends, Makanaka, Brian, maPretty, Tsitsi, Nyaradzo, Nyasha, and Rufaro. She felt as though she was moving to another world and that she would never see them again. The distance between Luveve and Killarney was monumental from her perspective. Here in Luveve her friends were a mere shout across the fence away in all four directions. She could go to the back fence and call Rufaro, to the fence on the right, yell for Tsitsi. Brian was to the fence on the left, and Maka’ lived across the road.

Indeed Killarney and Luveve were worlds apart, but not in terms of the physical distance that she had imagined. Killarney was a far cry from Luveve in many varied ways. Their house was three times the size of the one they had left in Luveve, and their yard was spacious enough to build six Luveve-sized houses. Her mother was seemed to be eternally happy as she planted flowers, built a beautiful rockery in the front yard, and planted neat rows of spinach, covo, carrots, onions, and tomatoes, in the back garden. She worked tirelessly with their gardener. Portia observed her looking at her white house with red trimming with a smile on her face and contentment diffusing out of every pore.

Portia and her brother spent hours exploring the bush surrounding their yard and looking for wild fruit, as they did when they visited their grandparents in the village. They marvelled at the number of different multi-coloured birds which came to perch on the trees in their yard or peck the earth for worms. They even came across a snake once and chameleons doing their one step- forward-swing-back-step-forward dance along the numerous bush paths. Daniel loved the blue headed lizards that scrambled up and down the gnarled tree trunks, bobbing their heads up and down as though in agreement with some ethereal truth. The only animals Portia had ever seen in Luveve were the mangy mgodoyi — mongrels which roamed the streets overturning dust bins in search of scraps of food — the wild sewer cats which wailed eerily like babies at night, and the rabbit-sized rats which bared their sharp teeth if she happened upon them on the compost heap in the far corner of the back yard.

It was a full week before Portia started to wonder where all the children were. The only sounds of children playing were the echoes of her and her brother’s screaming and laughing, which bounced off the walls of the two-car garage. Killarney was very quiet save for the whistling of the gardeners as they went about their daily business of weeding and watering neat flower beds, cleaning swimming pools, and sculpting shrubs into perfect ovoid shapes. This was in stark contrast to Luveve, where radios blasting the music of the Soul Brothers, children playing on the streets, and vendors hawking Ice Mints, Bazooka bubble gum, and matches, were a normal part of the auditory landscape. One could hear one’s neighbours talking loudly in their homes at night, or be woken up by one’s other neighbour’s newborn baby crying. Occasionally a fight would break out on the street and a crowd would gather round like a swarm of ants around a morsel of bread, for some free entertainment as the opponents hurled fists and colourful insults at each other.

In the second week Portia had grown tired of bush walking, and the company of her brother. She had read all the books she had borrowed from the library and was bored. She started to miss her old neighbourhood and what she considered a normal life. Surely there were people living in all the houses around them? Yet she had not seen anyone but the gardeners in overalls and housemaids in uniforms.

One day Portia was digging around in the back garden when she heard the voice of a child: “Nomsa buya lapha wena!” It was a murungu child speaking a funny kind of Ndebele she had never heard. She peered through the hedgerow of coniferous trees that separated their properties. There he was, a chubby blond haired boy in a red T-shirt, blue shorts, bare feet, and a catapult worn like a necklace, shouting at Nomsa the maid — Budhi Thomas had mentioned to Emmah that there was a fine lady who worked next door called Nomsa — who was hanging up some clothes on the line. The grin on his face as he relayed this information was priceless.

“Ah wena Theo! Uyahlupa man! Ngiyabuya! I am coming OK?” Nomsa sounded harassed as she responded to the child’s command to stop what she was doing immediately and attend to his needs.

Politely, Portia greeted sisi Nomsa, in Ndebele, who asked if they were the new people who had recently moved into that house. Portia said yes and asked her if the little boy wanted to come over and play. Theo had already seen Portia and had made his way with a quick clumsy trot, from the kitchen door to the fence.

“Basopa lo inja!” he yelled looking at Portia with clear blue eyes framed by blond eye lashes. Portia was a little confused and stood mute, staring back at him. For a moment she wondered whether he was a little crazy. “Gijima pikinin!” He stamped his foot shaking his fist in what was supposed to be a menacing gesture.

Portia was startled by Nomsa’s raucous laughter. She laughed so hard she had tears rolling down her plump cheeks. “Oh dear!” She sputtered, gasping for breath. “Theo, this likkle gal is no pikinin! She lives inside the big house with her family.

“Amanga! She lives in the boys’ khaya!” He yelled hysterically.

Suddenly Portia got it. The only African kids Theo was accustomed to seeing were the children of the maids and gardeners. European people, as the varungu preferred to be called, referred to them as pikinin in Chilapalapa, a Southern African pidgin. Basopa Lo Inja was supposed to frighten her into taking to her heels, terrified of being mauled by the dogs. Later she would come to understand why the dogs in Killarney were to be feared by blacks in particular.

“Hallo Theo, my name is Portia”. She greeted him in her newly acquired Queen’s English accent from the Dominican Convent School. He was shocked and he mumbled a greeting in response.

Nomsa burst out laughing again. A rich, rumbling, pride-infused laughter originating in the pit of her belly. “Who would have thought that one day we would also live in these big houses and speak English through our nostrils? Ha! IZimbabwe isibuyile sibili — Zimbabwe is truly here! Go and play Theo. I will call you to do bath time before Mummy and Daddy come home. Portia, as soon as I call just send him over chop chop or else his parents will fire me!” Nomsa said and returned to the laundry.

Thus began the clandestine relationship with Theo. He would jump over the back fence to come and play as soon as his parents left the house for work. They would spend all day climbing the rocks in the front yard rockery and hunting for grasshoppers in the bushes in front of Portia’s house. Theo would eat sadza and Lacto — curdled milk — for lunch with them and drink Mazoe orange crush with custard cream biscuits for snack. He told them that his daddy was a brave soldier in the Rhodesian army fighting the terrs’ in the bush. Portia and Daniel regaled him with stories of the comrades who shot down Smith’s helicopters from the mountain tops in Chivi. He told them that his mummy was a secretary in a big office in Bulawayo city. They boasted that their mummy could dance the waltz and knew all of Dolly Parton’s songs off by heart. They were an odd sight, that December of 1979 in Killarney, as they made their way up and down Murchison Road looking for adventure and birds to shoot at with Theo’s catapult. Two black kids with a white kid sandwiched between them was cause for many a car stopping and concerned white men and women asking: “Are you alright sonny? Do your parents know where you are? What are you doing alone out here? It can be very dangerous for you hey!”

Theo’s response was always given in a matter of fact tone. “I am not alone. I am playing with my friends, Portia and Daniel.”

The cars would drive away but not without a cold hard stare and a look of warning thrown towards Portia and her brother. This was Portia’s first encounter with adult hatred. As a seven year-old, being the focus of such visceral loathing was very frightening. She felt vulnerable and did not quite know how to react. At times she felt tempted to stick her tongue out at the adults in their cars, but she quickly remembered that one never showed disrespect to one’s elders. How she wished that these adults were her own age. She would have expeditiously delivered some black eyes and bloody noses for looking at her as if she stank. The dislike seemed so intense and totally unprovoked, that Portia soon realised that she and her brother were hated because they were, black. It dawned on her too that they were the only black people living in the main house in Killarney. The other blacks were the gardeners and the maids. Portia felt powerless and angry at her parents for moving them here, to a place where they did not belong and where they were not welcome. She could do nothing about the fact that she was black and that her parents had moved into an area where the inhabitants felt they had no place. The pride she had in her father and the sense of accomplishment she felt was her family’s were replaced by resentment and being made to feel like an impostor. She was riddled with guilt for feeling this way. She no longer liked or appreciated their new, elevated station in life, which brought with it isolation, loneliness and an uncomfortable suspicion that there was something not quite alright with them. She began to look at her skin, her hair and her nose and wonder with dissatisfaction why they weren’t more like varungu’s. Without the powers of articulation that come with age, she could not tell her parents what she was experiencing and so they seemed totally unaware of it all. Besides, they had bigger problems of their own. The move to Killarney was changing them and they no longer seemed as excited about their new home as they had been in the first few weeks.

For example one day, her mother came from town to find that sisi Emmah had put a dish towel out to dry on a bougainvillea bush in front of the kitchen. “Emmah, what is this?” she demanded, one hand on her hip and another dangling the towel in front of sisi Emmah’s bewildered face. Emmah knew better than to respond to a rhetorical question so she just stared at the cloth as though searching for a minute speck on it. “Do you want these people to think we are filthy pigs? Are you so lazy that you cannot walk to the washing line to hang this thing up? Don’t you ever decorate my bushes with a bloody wash cloth again!”

At this my mother stormed off into the house, leaving Emmah sullenly muttering under her breath. “I have always hung my dish cloths on the bushes to dry. I did it in Luveve. Why waste energy walking all the way to the clothes line when I have a perfectly good bush close by?” Emmah marched into the house after my mother, still grumbling menacingly like a distant thunderstorm.

One night she heard, for the first time, her parents arguing in their bedroom. She woke up to hear her father tell her mother in an angry tone: “If you think for a minute that I will allow these people to intimidate me out of a home that I paid for with my hard earned money, then think again. We are not going back to Luveve and that is final.” Portia heard her mother’s quiet voice responding, but could not understand what she was saying.

The atmosphere in their home changed. Her parents spoke to each other in terse monosyllables. Sisi Emmah no longer sang liberation songs while going about her chores and now she had to wear a uniform, like all the maids in their neighbourhood. Her mother constantly fussed over their state of cleanliness as though they were going to a party every day. She yelled at Daniel when he came home from preschool with ripped shorts or paint on his shirts, something that had never really bothered her before. She scolded Portia for not brushing her hair enough or for not putting enough lotion on her ashy legs.

Portia worried about the adults in the home and wished they could go back to Luveve, back to the way things had been, when they had all laughed, sang and did not care about what ‘those people’ thought or felt about anything.

One day in February, Theo and his family moved away. Portia and Daniel had never met his parents, who were intent on pretending they did not exist. Theo pretended they did not exist too, when his parents were at home. They had caught glimpses of his father in his army uniform and had often heard him barking commands to Nomsa, the gardener, and sometimes to his wife, whose name was Ashley. One day, their sadza-chomping friend was just gone.

With Theo no longer there, the desire to make friends in the neighbourhood resurfaced even stronger than before. Portia would walk along the fence peering curiously into the neighbouring yard for signs of any potential play mates. The stillness of Killarney made her want to shatter the silence with loud, piercing screams. Sometimes she felt the urge to greet the people who emerged from their houses, just to hear what their voices sounded like. All one heard were the sounds of car doors closing and the sound of engines as they drove in and out.

When one is in a state of high expectancy, one is alert to, and hears, even the most imperceptible of sounds. This was Portia’s constant state as she walked up and down their driveway after school, bored out of her mind and wishing Killarney would come to life. So when a sound came from the house on her right, she was instantly intrigued. It was a muted sound, a sort of grunting but also a lot like someone clearing their throat. Then, there was the sound of pots and pans falling onto the floor and the grunting became intense. It sounded like someone who was gagged trying to scream! Portia ran round the house to the back and called Daniel and Budhi Thomas, their gardener. The three of them stood behind the huge Syringa tree near the garage and from this vantage point they could see into the neighbouring house through its windows. Hidden from sight by the huge tree trunk, they watched as drama unfolded. They saw a woman with pale skin, and unkempt, shoulder length jet black hair flailing a frying pan at a black man they had seen outside the gate, but who never responded to their greetings. He was cowering and trying to slip past her to get to the door for a quick escape.

“That is Josphat”, hissed bhudi Thomas amazed. “He is the cook!”

Portia’s focus was not on Josphat but on the lady brandishing the frying pan. She seemed to have totally lost control of her senses. She grunted, screamed, gesticulated, and stomped. On another occasion, such as watching TV, Portia and Daniel might have rolled on the ground and laughed ‘till their sides ached. However this was real life and without the glass screen of the television to shield them from possible attack from the maniacal madam, they stood still and held their breaths behind the tree. Suddenly Josphat yelped as the frying pan found its mark on his head. At this juncture Portia and Daniel ran towards their house and collapsed on the living room floor, panting.

“Josphat is dead! I just know it. There is no way he can still be alive after that knock to the head.” Portia uttered with total conviction.

“Well, what shall we do?” Asked Daniel, clearly perplexed.

“Nothing.” Portia hissed dramatically. “She will probably drag his body to the back garden tonight and bury him and plant cabbages on top of the grave. Then the police will come and look for witnesses and we will have to tell them what happened.”

Daniel looked terrified. “Police? How do they know we saw anything?”

Portia snorted derisively. “The police know everything. They ask a lot of questions and they will know we saw something even before they come to ask us.”

Such was the melodrama conjured up by the mind of a seven year-old at the slightest stimulation.

This was the first of many theatrical episodes from their neighbours, a deaf and dumb white couple and their long suffering cook Josphat. Their yard was as wild and untidy as the couple, who always looked as though they had just woken from sleep. All Portia ever heard was grunting and screaming but never a decipherable word. Portia and Daniel named the couple Mai naBaba Kazdande, Mr. and Mrs. Kadzande; a name that was used as they improvised and added language to the puppet-like gesticulations, grunting, and sudden piercing screams, which sent shock waves of laughter through their bodies. They spent countless hours behind the Syringa tree, watching the pantomime and adding their own script:

“You, Baba Kazdande you make me very angry! You have not combed your hair for days! Your mouth is smelly like a toilet and you need a bath!”

Ah! Shut up Mai Kadzande, you talk too much!

“No! How can you insult me when you know very well I cannot talk?’

“Oh! Neither can I! Ha ha ha!”

At this, Portia and Daniel would both emit hyena like cackles, rocking back and forth on the ground to ease the aching in their ribs.

And so they passed their first few months in Killarney, the suburb with the huge houses, muted sounds and the vicious dogs that were trained to see little black children as chew toys. Portia learned from the gardeners who worked in the houses around theirs that many of the dogs were trained to attack black people. Duchess was one such dog. She was a huge, vicious black Doberman, who at the sight of Portia and her brother, would scale the gate to her owner’s property and come bounding down the road bearing down on them. Their only salvation was the speed in their legs as they cycled through the air to deposit them safely in their own yard. Duchess was fast but she tired very quickly, and unlike the wild dogs on the savannah, she knew she would not starve if she did not keep up the chase. She would stop in her tracks, as though suddenly remembering this fact, and amble back to her yard without a backward glance.

One by one Portia and her family watched the whites leave Killarney, a mass exodus, which began in December 1979 with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement, swelled in April 1980 with the inception of the Republic of Zimbabwe and climaxed in the early 1990’s as she finished high school. She left the country to study in America and in the interim years, the neighbourhood transformed from a quiet sleepy suburb with bland white houses into a busy bustling place with yellow, green, pink and blue houses, concrete walls, emergency taxies, and commuter buses. With each visit home for holidays, Portia found that the landscape had evolved and transformed as new homes were constructed on vacant lots, the bush in which she and her brother had once foraged for wild fruit, gone. It was peppered with trash, plastic bags and old newspapers as the city council garbage pick-up trucks started coming once every two weeks, then once a month, then not at all. With each subsequent visit home, she witnessed the erosion of the tarred roads starting with dents, whose edges were nibbled away by the elements to form potholes, which turned into manholes as time went on. With each visit, Portia felt less and less at home and her unease with the transition grew gnawing away at her security like a drug resistant fungus. Each visit became shorter than the last one and eventually, there were no more visits.

Transitions was written by Barbara Mhangami–Ruwende.

Copyright © Barbara Mhangami–Ruwende 2011.

Barbara Mhangami–Ruwende was born and raised in Zimbabwe. She left home at the age of eighteen and worked in Germany before embarking on her undergraduate studies at the University Of Glasgow, Scotland. Barbara moved to the United States in 1997, where she attended the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Walden University. She resides with her husband and 4 daughters. She is passionate about raising her daughters, reading good literature, writing, travelling and running marathons. She is currently working on a short story collection and a novel.


Masimba Musodza said...

As one who's family also moved to the suburbs, I can relate to this. Evokes so many memories

Emmanuel Sigauke said...

Many times I have heard of of stories morphing into novels; this is one is rich enough to develop into a larger work: its interesting enough to keep readers engaged; then there is the whole business of going to America, coming back, going back, coming back, and then staying away...

Avi8r said...

Empathetically infusing. Stirrs euphoric memories of years gone by, in the characters I see friends, cousins and family.

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