WALTER MTHIMKHULU – Interviewed by Marieke Clarke at Hull, England, April 10TH and 11th 2018

To commemorate the passing of my cousin-brother Walter on 7 July 2018, I am posting an extract of his account from the book – A Cradle of the Revolution.  Voices from Inyathi School.

CHILDHOOD                   

I was born at my mother’s place, Sinkugwe near Stanmore, Gwanda, on 19January 1940. My parents were not married.  My birth mother was MaNkosi. Her father was a white man who had two children with my grandmother.   After I was born, I was whisked away to Lupane to my father’s parents and a stepmother, MaNdlela.   

MaNdlela was really an angel to me.  All her life, she treated me like her own biological son. My father was working in town and lived in a detached cottage in Makhokhoba Township. 

When I was given my first pair of long trousers, my father said, “Your mother gave them to you.”  I did not know whether it was MaNkosi or MaNdlela who had given the trousers. So I did not know whom I should thank. I got to know months later when I was visiting Bulawayo. My birth mother asked me if I had received the trousers. I then thanked her.  

Our paternal grandmother MaNdlovu told us about our history.    

PRIMARY AND SECONDARY SCHOOL

My first school was a London Missionary Society school at Lupane, where I did Sub Standards A and B. The school had no other classes, so I went to my birth mother for further classes. I attended a Brethren in Christ school at Gwanda till Standard 2.

The Brethren in Christ were dogmatic.  They said, “You must be married by the Church.  Any other form of marriage is unholy.”

 I went to a traditional wedding with friends.  It was fun for little boys. There was plenty to eat and lively dancing.  The Brethren in Christ had sent spies to see if any of us school pupils were there. We had just taken our examinations, but were told that we could not get our results because we had been at the traditional wedding. We were only ten years old, but we were instructed to make 50 bricks each as punishment. I did not have to make the bricks because my mother took me to a white senior teacher who did not know about the rule that a traditional wedding was condemned.

I was then sent to Gloag Ranch, a boarding school for Standards 3 to 6. The principal was Rev Samson, whose son David was the same age as me. We played together. But David insulted me and I beat him up. He was covered with blood. His father called me in and prayed, “I have come all the way from Scotland and you do this!”

I replied, “I did not ask you to come and help me!”

Meanwhile Mrs Samson was cooking and we all shared a meal!  Rev Samson was a good man but rather superior.

In 1955 I started secondary school at Inyathi.  Under the liberal headmaster Kenneth Maltus Smith, we engaged in heated political debates and leading thinkers of the time came to address students.  Joshua Nkomo, Jason Moyo and Chief Khayise Ndiweni were some of the visitors during my time.

I went to Fletcher High School for my ‘A’ levels.  Within a year I was expelled for leading an anti-government strike.

INTO THE WORLD OF WORK

I had to find a job.  I went to Harare where I worked for the Ministry of Home Affairs as a Pass Officer and was sent to the district office at Gwanda.  A man called Trollip was the Native Commissioner. We did not get on well, even though he spoke fluent isiNdebele. The other pass officers were white so I had a separate office. Finally I was sacked and arrived in Bulawayo the weekend of the Zhii Riots.

Though a member of ZAPU, I got a full time job as a reporter for the Daily News.  Following the banning of the Daily News I crossed to Zambia.

FOUR YEARS IN the USA 1963 – 67. 

In 1963 ZAPU sent me to Syracuse University the USA.  During the four years, my closest friend was South African student Keorapatse Kgositsile. We had first met in Bulawayo and later in Tanzania when we were both reporters. Now we renewed our friendship. At one time the two of us nearly got killed on the way to a Black Power rally in Mississippi.

A USEFUL YEAR IN THE SOVIET UNION

Ten of us were sent to the USSR to major in Communications for one full year. We left Zambia in about January 1968 and returned around December 1968. Joshua Mahlathini Mpofu was commander of the group and I was deputy.    

REVOLT AND DEPORTATION

In 1974, after an unsuccessful revolt against ZAPU leadership I was one of the forty-five cadres deported to Britain.  I was extremely disillusioned.  I felt we had given all we had to reform the Party so that we continued to wage a just war.  We had failed.  Our former comrades now saw us as traitors taking refuge in the land of our former colonizers.  We were convinced they were the traitors. 

 In 1976 I joined Muzorewa and later was appointed UK representative for the UANC.  I thought Muzorewa was a Christian man who was trying to do his bit. I finally met him and he was sound in his own way: he felt there was a way of negotiating with Smith. Muzorewa was also very supportive to the guerrillas in practical ways.

The Geneva conference failed: Smith was very stubborn.

In 1978 I was told to return to Rhodesia. I was scared but went with some others.

INTO SECOND EXILE

By 1985, Zimbabwe was a living hell for a politician who was not a member of ZANU-PF.  In November 1985 I flew out of Zimbabwe to the UK into my second exile.

75th BIRTHDAY PARTY

Birthday celebrations are not a part of our tradition. And so, while I was growing up, I never had a birthday party.  As an adult I saw no reason for one. But on 26 January 2015, my relatives and friends threw a surprise birthday party for me. Over 30 of our great-great grandfather Dayise’s descendants and about 10 friends gathered at a community centre on Spring Bank in Hull to hug me, wish me a happy 75th birthday and dance the night away. Two cakes, one with an AK 47 outline on top, were baked.

I was touched. For the first time since I was a child, I felt tears gather in my eyes.  I had been in prison when my father died in 1972 and so I could not carry out the role of the first son at the funeral.  I was in my second exile when both my mothers died. On both occasions, relatives in the UK offered to organise memorial services, but I refused: I just wanted to be alone.

At the end of the birthday party, Terence, my nephew threatened that my 80th birthday would be even bigger.

Walter passed away in Hull, UK on 7 July 2018 and was interred in the same city on 25 July 2019.  

Full version of Walter’s account available from the book: A Cradle of the Revolution:  Voices from Inyathi School, edited by Pathisa Nyathi and Marieke Clarke.  Amagugu Publishers.

To my blog readers, I am taking a two months break from the blog to focus on the anthology of short stories.  Thank you for the encouraging comments you sent in the past six months.  I will be back.

Mzana Mthimkhulu.

The Gogo Show – An excerpt

Kindly enjoy this excerpt from my forthcoming anthology of short stories.

On the morning Gogo recovered from flu, she rushed to the kitchen hut where Mother was boiling fresh groundnuts.  Gogo’s full-length apron announced her intention to resume all her household duties.  She stopped at the door and smiled at her daughter-in-law.  From the centre of the hut, Mother smiled back.

‘Thank-you my dear for holding the fort during my little cough.  I am back.’   

Mother slowly lifted up the lid of the pot and inspected the groundnuts.  ‘My pot is coming up well,’ she sighed.

‘Young lady,’ Gogo hissed inching forward, ‘I am talking to you.  ‘I said ‘I am back.” 

‘I heard you the first time,’ Mother said straightening herself up.   She was a big woman and towered over Gogo.  ‘Old lady, things have changed in this home.  I’m now in charge of the kitchen and….’

Gogo blinked and shook her head in disbelief.  ‘Right up to this present day, my son, your husband, has never dared to speak back to me, let alone disobey me. Who then do you think you are to…?’

‘Leave my husband out of this.  This is between you and I.’

‘Between you and I!’ Gogo exclaimed, her eyes rolling up to look at the soot on the grass roof and beating her thigh in a rhythmic way.  ‘What bad omen is this when a daughter-in-law defies her mother-in-law?’

‘Mother who bore for me a husband,’ Mother said in a calm voice, ‘I left my father’s home and came here to start my own home.  I’ll cook for my children, just as you once cooked for your children. As our people say – you dance and then leave the centre stage for others.  Now it’s my turn to be at the centre.  Yours is to be on the side lines singing and clapping for me.’

Eyes fixed on Mother, chest expanding and contracting, Gogo stepped forward in a threatening manner.  ‘Listen Goliath; don’t let your size fool you.  I’m in charge of the kitchen.’

Mother stood her ground and arms akimbo, stared down at Gogo.  ‘Cooking is now my territory.’

‘We will see about that,’ Gogo yelled, swirling round.  Fury lent her wings.  She flew along the yard to where Grandpa was sitting on a three legged stool.  A cool breeze was blowing under the big marula tree on the edge of the yard.  Grandpa was carving a hoe handle when the eagle landed. 

‘You won’t believe what that cheeky daughter-in-law of yours has just done!’ Gogo gasped. 

‘What happened?’  Grandpa drawled.

‘This time she has gone too far.  She screamed at me to get out of her kitchen, her kitchen!  She says I am now too old to cook; from now on she will do all the cooking.  What insolence is this when…?”

Grandpa sighed.  ‘I don’t agree with the screaming but I see nothing wrong with her cooking.’

She glared at her husband. ‘Nothing wrong with her cooking even though I have fully recovered!  Did you actually say that?’ 

‘Yes Honey.  The thing is….’

‘Go on; admit it, after forty years of devouring my food, you now prefer her cooking to mine. You want this upstart to take over the running of this home.’

Grandpa shook his head.  ‘No beautiful maiden of the Ndlovu family, Gatsheni, Boyabenyathi, the great elephants that graze at home….’

‘Listen Mr. Aspiring Praise Poet,’ Gogo cut it, ‘clan praises are for individuals that have not achieved anything in life.  I have.’

 Gogo put down the adze and smiled at his wife.  ‘I was just reminding you of the great clan you come from.’

‘If you want to acknowledge my greatness, dwell on my achievements.  Ask the ladies of this district, who cooks for pastors at church gatherings?  I do.  Who cooks for leaders at political gatherings? I do?  Who cooks for the high table at weddings?  Of course I do.  Now in my own home, you want to reduce me to just a consumer.  A cow will birth a human baby before that happens!’

Again Grandpa shook his head.  ‘No one will take over from you.  You will remain overall in charge of all housework. I just want you to be released from running around all day so that we spend more time together.’

‘Spend time with you doing what?  I’m not a loafer like you.  I love work. That daughter-in-law of yours has often hinted that my cooking is not up to the standard taught at those Young Women Christian Association courses she attends.  According to her, the time-honoured practice of tasting relish using a stirring spoon is unhygienic.  My isitshwala is too thick.  My vegetables are overcooked and vitamin less.  What I want to know is how did my children – including her husband – grow up to be healthy adults if my cooking was unhygienic? More important, why was she one of the many girls who fell for my son like flies tumbling into a bowl of milk?  Once in, she elbowed out all the other girls.’

Slowly, Grandpa stood up and started to walk away.  He stopped, looked back and said, ‘we will conclude this discussion when our son comes. Meanwhile, our daughter-in-law cooks.’

Father arrived that Friday evening and the following morning all four adults gathered for a great indaba under the marula tree.  We loitered around the tree to be entertained by the arguments. Grandpa would have none of this.  He instructed us to go and herd cattle. I pretended not to have heard the instruction.  Louder, Grandpa repeated the order.  We dragged our feet along the path towards the stream.

Although we missed out on the arguments, we knew the results that evening.   Mother won.  She continued to cook.

Gogo did not speak to Grandpa for a whole month. ‘Poor kids,’ she would say to us, ‘you have a sellout for a grandfather.  How many years have I been his wife?  Gave him seven children.  Nursed him through countless illnesses.  Yet, that did not stop him from stabbing me in the back at the first opportunity.  Men!’ 

‘What a pig-headed grandma you have!’ Grandpa often whispered to us. ‘She won’t give up doing some things even though everybody can see that the change would be good for all. Women!’

‘Thou shall not sulk if thy wife earns more than you do.’

My Colleague and his Wife

A colleague once told me, ‘There was a time when my wife earned more than I did.  When I got promoted my new salary was considerably higher than hers.   I expected her to jump for joy but, with the back of her hand she wiped her brow and sighed, ‘phew, what a relief!  I was at my wits end.  I just didn’t know how to handle a situation in which I earned more than my husband.’’

‘What do you mean?’ my colleague asked her.

“When my aunts,’ the wife explained, ‘dished out their advice at my ukulaya session (last family advice to a girl before marriage), the subject of how to handle our earnings as husband and wife never came up.  Neither did the pastor’s pre-marriage counselling sessions cover this important issue.  So when I found myself earning more than you I was not sure how you would take it.  I now was scared to broach a subject in which money was involved lest you took it the wrong way.   For instance, I could not suggest we buy something we needed.’’

‘Why not?’ my confused colleague asked.

“Well, you could have said: ‘woman, just because you earn more than I do, you think you now dictate what to buy and what not to buy.  Forget it!’’

My friend shook his head.  ‘But I never thought that way!  I was happy with the way things were.’

“How would I have known?  Anyway, now that the difference in our earnings is what it should be, we can resume living as a normal couple.’’

How did this long standing arrangement in which men earned more than women come about?

A Glance at the Past     

Socio-historians suggest that childcare and the advent of agricultural technology (especially the animal drawn plough) brought about the arrangement in which women stayed at home whilst men ventured out to fend for the family.  Outside work was viewed to be harder and dangerous.  It therefore gained a higher status.   To consolidate this status, men developed religious beliefs, traditions, practices and a language that confirmed their superiority over women.

Manipulating Religion and Language  

For instance, in both Christianity and Judaism the Jewish folklore of Lilith does not feature anywhere in the official creation story.  This is in spite of the fact that Jewish folklore categorically states that Lilith was created from dust at the same time with Adam and was his first wife.  Lilith saw herself as Adam’s equal and according to the folklore, the two often argued.  Eventually she fled the Garden of Eden to gain her independence.  The submissive Eve was then created for the lonely Adam.  To ensure who was the boss, this time the woman was created from the man’s rib.

Language has also been commandeered to underline men’s perceived superiority.  In English, women are often referred to as the weaker sex.  In Ndebele a ‘respectable’ term referring to grown up women is abesintwana – the children gender.

By going out more often than women, and having more leisure time, men became more knowledgeable than women.  In every household, the man was the most knowledgeable person.  This further enhanced the status of men.

Enter the Modern Era

However, the past forty years or so has seen rapid industrial, technological, educational and societal changes.  The order I described above is no more.   For instance, if today’s fathers were tasked to help their children with home work without referring to any source, many would flee their homes faster than Lilith flew out of Eden.  Their days of being more knowledgeable than other family members are long gone.

As we all know, one of the results brought about by these changes is that some women now earn more than their partners.  Further some women are now the sole bread winners in their households.  The indications are that both trends are set to grow.  Those who are fighting to reverse this role reversal be warned: you are facing an angry bull elephant – unarmed.  Instead of fighting the trends, work out the best ways of living with this reality.

Modern Era Commandments 

I believe a win/win way forward is to accept the changes and make the most of them.  To make progress in this new era, I suggest we adopt the following commandments:

  1.  Thou shall not feel bad if you earn more than most men, including your male partner.  You worked for it and deserve what you are earning.  Enjoy it.
  2. Thou shall not sulk if thy female partner earns more than you do.  You are not a failure. It’s just the way the world is right now and likely to be in the foreseeable future
  3.  Thou shall take time to learn skills required to take care of children and other household chores.  Use the time at home to pursue other interests 
  4. Thou shall not take home the authority you wield at work.
  5. Thou shall not insist that at home things are done in the way you are used to.  If the end result is not harmful, be happy.
  6. Relatives, thou shall not make snide remarks if couples are grappling with the issue of earnings and household chores.
  7. Thou shall constantly review the commandments and if need be, adapt to the changing circumstances.          

This new era is in its early stages and thus the suggested commandments are not exhaustive.  Perhaps dear reader you too could add more from your experiences and observations?      

What kind of arts critic are you?

                                                                                                                         

Put on your thinking cap.  We are going intellectual this week.  Do you have an opinion on a song, film, painting, play, sculpture or a work of fiction?

If your answer is yes, then you are an arts critic.  Read on and establish with mathematical precision the kind of critic you.  

The world has two kinds of critics: Arts for arts’ sake and Arts for a purpose.  The first view maintains that art has no practical function whilst the second insists that art is functional and serves a purpose. 

Socio-economic Categories 

In the Western and Third Worlds, we all belong to each of the following six socio-economic and racial categories: – social class, race, gender, country location, education and talent grade.  The categories are further divided into two sub-categories – the upper and the lower.  As a first step towards knowing the kind of critic you are; place yourself in each of the six sub-categories.

A brief description of each category follows: –

Social class:  The upper and middle social classes form the upper sub-category.  This group owns the means for creating wealth and of communication, has technical and scientific knowledge, enjoys steady occupations and owns properties.   

The lower sub-category is comprised of manual and clerical workers, vendors, peasants and the unemployed.  It has little or no property.   

Race:  Two broad racial groups – Whites (upper sub-category) and Blacks (lower sub-category.)   

Gender: Males form the upper sub-category and females the lower one.  There is unequal treatment of individuals based on gender.  Females have fewer opportunities for advancement and access to goods and services.

Country Location:  The two sub-categories are the Western World and the Third World.  Third World countries supply the West raw materials, cheap labour and are a market for finished products.  Note it’s possible to live in the Western World but indentify with the Third World and vice-versa.    

Education:  Whilst education can be regarded as part of social class, it’s so important that it merits a category of its own.  The two sub categories here are the educated and the non-educated.  The upper sub-category consists of those with secondary school education coupled with vocational/professional qualifications.  The lower sub-category is for those with four years secondary education and below.

Talent Grade:  The two sub-categories are the talented and the non talented.  The talented have an inborn ability to raise their social class.  Talent is acknowledged if it has been demonstrated and publicly appreciated, not just its potential.

A tabulation of the categories is as follows:                                                                                                             

Category Social Class Race Gender Country Location Education Talent Grade
Upper Category Upper Classes White Male Developed World Tertiary Talented
Lower Category Lower Classes Black Female Developing World Non Tertiary Non Talented

Position Matrix

The kind of critic you are is determined by your overall score on the above table.  This is arrived at by establishing your score in each of the six categories.  Where you belong to the upper sub-category, you score a point and where you belong to the lower sub-category, you get zero.  Your final score out of six is your Position Matrix.

To illustrate how we get to the Position Matrix, let us use two guinea pigs – Prince Charles and a female, Black street vendor we call X. 

Prince Charles is an aristocrat whose family owns large tracts of land.  He therefore secures a point on social class.  Vendor X scores zero. 

On gender and race, the prince collects two points whilst Vendor X gets two zeroes. 

Vendor X lives in a township in Zimbabwe whilst the Prince belongs and identifies with the United Kingdom.  He gets another point on country location and Vendor X gets a zero. 

In education, the prince boasts a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University.  Vendor X, an orphan at an early age had to drop out of school when she was in Grade 6.  A point for the prince and a zero for Vendor X.

Should one score at least four in the first five categories, talent is automatically added.  Prince Charles has already scored 5 and is thus awarded the talent point.  If Vendor X has talent, it is yet to be discovered.  She therefore gets zero.

The final score is 6/6 for Prince Charles and 0/6 for Vendor X. These scores are the Position Matrixes for our guinea pigs.

What is the practical use of this Position Matrix? It quickens our assessment of how an individual views art.  The lower you score, the closer you are to arts is functional school of thought.  Conversely, the higher you score the closer you get to arts for arts’ sake camp. 

An example of practical use of the Position Matrix could be in understanding the saga of the then South African President Zuma’s Painting.  In May 2012 the President Zuma asked the High Court to issue an order that the display of a painting depicting his genitals violated his constitutional rights to dignity.  His black lawyer Gcina Malindi argued that the painting was a ‘colonial attack on the black culture of this country.’  However the white Judge Neels Claassen responded: ‘what evidence is there this is a colonial attack on the black cultures of this country?

What are the Position Matrixes of Gcina Malindi and Neels Claassen?

 Malindi gets three points on Social Class, Gender and Education.  In addition to the three points Malindi gets, Claassen garners another point under Race.  Claassen’s quizzing of Malindi reveals that though he lives in a developing country, he identifies with the Western culture.  He therefore scores a point on Country Location.  Like Prince Charles, Claassen is awarded the talent point.  Thus their Position Matrixes are: Malindi – 3/6 and Claassen –  6/6. 

Malindi’s comparatively lower Position Matrix is a mathematical expression of his view that art has a function.  In the Zuma painting, the function was to denigrate his culture.  With a 6/6 Position Matrix, Claassen views the painting as pure art, nothing more.

What about you, what is your Position Matrix?

Me and my pet hates.

Tell me my friend, what are your pet hates?  I have four.  In no particular order, here they are:

I seethe with rage when the front person of a service provider or of a retail shop chats with a workmate instead of serving me.  In these difficult times, parting with money is more painful than having a tooth extracted.  It’s my fundamental right to have the full attention of whoever expects me to part with my money.         

As soon I step into her shop, I expect the shop assistant to smile like the airhostess of a world class airline.  Her cheerful face affirms that I’m part of the human race and reduces the pain I’m about to endure.  On the other hand, listening to her talk with her workmate makes me feel like an intruder in the shop.  The agony of being rejected increases when she turns round from her mate and demands that I repeat my request.  Of course, how could she have heard me when she was busy yap-yapping!

Filling in a form is another one of my pet hates.  My blood boils when forced to squeeze in personal details into those many boxes on the form.  I feel boxed in like a prisoner.  Further, even if I live to be a thousand, my date and place of birth will never change.  How many times must I give this information to authorities?  As a pupil, whenever I gave a correct answer, the teacher would nod and repeat the answer to all.   Why then must I now keep repeating a correct answer?  We are supposed to be living at a time when information technology has fundamentally changed the way we live.  Once I pick up a form, I expect it to automatically fill in all information I would have previously submitted to authorities.      

Have you noticed that some of the questions asked on one form have the same answer?  My residential and postal addresses are identical.  So when filling in my postal address, I once wrote: ‘see question 3 above.’  I handed over my completed form to the clerk.  He almost exploded with fury.   His thick finger landed on the answer with a thud and thundered; ‘nobody lives at ‘see question 3 above.’’

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled.  I retrieved the form, cancelled that answer, wrote down my full address and handed it back.

He glared at the form and shook his head.  ‘We don’t accept cancellations.’

‘Sir, my writing is clear and…’

‘Fill in another form.  Next!’

Rude clerks could be said to be another one of my pet hates but I suppose these are in the same category with unsmiling shop assistants. 

Another one of my pet hates is someone who keeps talking about himself only.  Lest you accuse me of doing just that, I will take a break from listing my pet hates. 

A friend of mine tells me his pet hate is listening to minutes being read at our residents meeting.  ‘Remember,’ my friend often fumes, ‘this is a social, not business meeting. Why then the formality? Those who attended the previous meeting know what was discussed and agreed.  So why force them to hear it a second time?’

‘Those who were not at the last meeting want to know what transpired,’ I once pointed out.

‘They would have forgotten details of what was discussed at the last meeting,’ he said ‘and so can not confirm the minutes as a correct record.  Just skip the whole charade and get on with the day’s business.’

No amount of explanation can convince my friend the value of reading minutes.

My final pet hate…well imagine this scene. Appetizing food has been dished out, aroma fills the air, stomachs are grumbling and we are all salivating.   ‘Let us pray,’ some killjoy says.

We close our eyes and the killjoy proceeds to deliver a long, long prayer.  I mastered my pre-meals prayer at boarding school.   With our eyes open, grace was: ‘for the food before us, we thank Thee.  Amen.’

I admit, when the headmaster was in the dining hall, the prayer was a bit longer.  We would throw in a request that we did well in school.  We even closed our eyes, for there was no danger of anyone stealing your piece of meat.  That headmaster could see us all, even with his eyes closed.

I used to hate people who when greeting me at a public gathering declared, ‘I’m pleased to see,’ yet glanced over my shoulder in search for more important guests. I caught myself doing just that at a meeting last Saturday.  I now tolerate this offence.  

What about you dear reader, what are your pet hates?   

All superstitions are silly, except…

This time in a louder voice, the man from the water authority demanded again:   ‘Where is your water meter?’  As though wielding a weapon, he shook in my face a metre long iron rod they use to cut off and reopen water supplies.

‘Over there,’ I pointed to a clearing beyond thick and wet grass. 

‘Come and show me the exact spot,’ he commanded.  His gumboots trampled the tall grass. 

‘I am not going anywhere near that water meter.  I will direct you from the safety of where I am standing.’

‘Safety?  He glanced back with a frown.  ‘What harm can a mere water meter possibly do?’      

I sighed and shook my head.  ‘These unusual rains have dragged out strange creatures.  Next to the meter hole cover, there now lives a permanently furious black mamba.’   

‘Black mamba!’  He dropped the rod, leapt up, staggered back like a drunkard and grabbed my wrist.  ‘Did you say black mamba?’

 ‘You heard me right.  Vicious thing!  The other day, without any provocation it struck my dog twice in as many seconds.  My poor dog yelped and howled on the ground.  Within ten minutes it was stone dead.’ 

Hand trembling and palm sweating, the man tightened his grip like a frightened child.

‘What are you waiting for?  Call the wild life authorities.’ 

‘I did that three weeks ago and up to now they have not turned up.’

‘Follow up.  Phone them.’

‘My land line is not working.’

‘Use your cell phone.’

‘It has no money.  I am saving for your water bill.’

The man swallowed saliva and slowly released my hand.  ‘I will report the mamba to the relevant authorities.’  Without a single backward glance, he hurried back to the waiting van outside.

‘You forgot your rod,’ I shouted.

He waved a hand.  ‘I have another one in the van.’

The van screeched away, quite forgot that the road was potholed.

This was two weeks back. I have not had another visit from the water authority man.  This has given time to exchange my scarce foreign currency for the local currency.  Today my water bill is settled and I walk tall, with no fear of being cut off.

Yet I have been seized by another fear.  For you dear reader to understand this new and paralyzing terror, I first must explain a superstition my people have.  It is called ukuzihlolozela.  It means if you go about saying this and that exists or something will happen to you, behold it will.  I now fear my fictitious and ferocious mamba will come to life.  When I walk in the grass, I hear it hissing by my side.  I jump and quickly turn round.  For a few seconds, I see it disappearing into the grass.  A few metres away, it springs up, its piercing big eyes level with my stomach.  ‘Next time,’ it hisses, ‘I will do to you what I did to your dog.’ 

Even inside my house, I hear the mamba slithering on the ceiling.  I try to put away the thought, but next, I imagine the serpent landing on to my neck.  Like the folktale flying snake mgobho, it sinks its fangs into my neck and empties all its poison. 

A silly superstition you may say, but I remember Miss Barkham our secondary school English teacher.  She hailed from England and often chided us for being ruled by superstitions.  ‘Not that we Europeans don’t have any superstitions,’ she once said.  ‘But ours are now things of the past.  We just joke about them and never take the tales seriously.  Give it time, one day you will develop and catch up with us.’

One rainy day Miss Barkham sent Nomsa to go and fetch chalk from the office.   She lent Nomsa her umbrella.  In front of Miss Barkham, Nomsa tried to open the umbrella. 

‘Not in the classroom!’  A startled Miss Barkham shouted.

‘Why not?’ Nomsa asked.  ‘The door is wide enough for an open umbrella.’

‘Some people believe it is a bad omen to open an umbrella in a room,’ Miss Barkham explained.  ‘It will bring all of us bad luck!’  

We laughed.  ‘That’s just a superstition,’ we reassured our frightened teacher.

‘I don’t believe it myself,’ she shrugged, ‘but what if there is some truth in it?  Why take an unnecessary risk?  There will be no opening of an umbrella in my classroom.’

Nomsa chuckled and started to open the umbrella.  Miss Barkham grabbed back the umbrella and frogmarched Nomsa to the door.  Outside at the veranda she opened it for her.

We nodded with understanding.  The English teacher had taught us an important lesson – all superstitions are silly, except when they are yours.

My mother drilled into me the superstition of ukuzihlolozela.  Yes, the belief is silly but it is mine.  It has turned me a prisoner in my own house.  I feel it in my bones.  The black mamba is lurking somewhere in my yard, even house. I just will have to figure out how to deal with it.

Not all is lost though.  My people say God does not give directly into your hands.  With no effort on my part, I now own the rod for cutting off and opening our water supply.

An excerpt from True Love and Other Stories

This week I’m posting an excerpt from my forthcoming anthology True Love and Other Stories

Speech.

‘Damn it!’ Richard swore for the first since he had been a student union activist thirty years back. 

‘Take it easy my man,’ the chairman sitting by his side whispered.  ‘Swearing is not permitted in our meetings.’

Richard ignored him.  He clicked his tongue in annoyance, threw down on the table the document he had been reading and stared at his audience.   Eyes blazing, he pointed at everyone in the hall. 

‘Each and every one of you is responsible for the mess we are in.  Don’t blame government for your cowardice.  The constitution clearly states that all official languages are equal.  But what do you people do?  When served by an official who does not speak your language, you try to speak that official’s language.  Good Lord!  Why?’

‘It’s the only way we will get served,’ a man in blue overalls sitting on the front row shouted.  ‘How can we boycott government officials?  They wield all the power.’

‘Yes,’ a woman with plaited hair nodded, standing up.  ‘If you can’t get an important document from an impossible government officer you can’t tell him to get lost and go elsewhere.’  Applause and cheers filled the packed hall.

The chairman raised his hands shouting, ‘order, order,’  but the audience heckled him and drowned his voice.      

‘They get angry if we can’t speak their language and refuse to serve us,’ yet another attendee shouted.

‘My point exactly,’ Richard banged the table.  ‘You let the Southerners walk all over you.  You allow them to get away with murder.  Look, I can understand the officials insisting on speaking with everyone in their language.  They have a mission.  They want our language to die.  But what about you?  Why aid and abate them?  Sellouts!  That’s what you are.’  He took out a white handkerchief and wiped his brow before continuing.

‘Remind the officials that the constitution allows us all to speak our languages and so all government officials serving the public must speak local languages.  Our people say: ‘the one who brings it upon himself is not wept over; it is the innocent victim we weep for.’  You all brought this upon yourselves.’

The audience was quiet and Richard picked up the document again.  In a monotonous voice, he resumed reading his prepared speech, quoting long clauses from the constitution.  The audience did not make any more comments.

‘Great speech,’ a reporter told him after the question and answer session.

‘Thank you,’ Richard said shaking her.  She had a Mohawk hairstyle with a gradual cut across the sides and back.   ‘Here is the written speech to help you report it accurately.’  She accepted in with a smile.

The following morning Richard found his name splashed on the front page of the main Sunday paper.  His remarks outside the prepared speech were quoted at length and the reporter added views from political commentators who had not been at the meeting.  Most of the commentators agreed with Richard and praised him for understanding the constitution.  Some even hailed him as a visionary.

He had just finished reading the article when his wife hurried into the sitting room brushing off imagined dust from her brown costume.  ‘You are not going to church in jeans,’ she complained.  ‘Go and dress up properly.’

 ‘I am not going at all today.’

‘Oh Richard, as a couple we are supposed to be seen together in church.  You don’t know how embarrassing it is when I have to explain your absence.’

‘Tell them I am out there reminding humanity of the teachings of Jesus.’

She snorted.  ‘And what are those?’

‘To love one another like the Good Samaritan did.  I want to explain to that reporter…’ 

‘You can do it tomorrow,’ she suggested.  ‘Why waste your Sunday…’

Richard cleared his throat.  ‘The Bible says: ‘Don’t put it off, do it now.  Don’t rest until you do.  Saving yourself like a gazelle escaping from a hunter.’’

‘Why all this fuss?  This is just about languages.’

‘It’s much more than that.  For me as a civil servant, making political statements in public is a serious offence.  The least I can do is to clarify what I said.’

‘I am sure your bosses will understand,’ she said.

‘Besides, there is a bigger issue.  Language is about who we are as a people.  If it dies, we too die.   Now that I have been dragged into the debate I have to properly articulate our grievances as Northerners.  Don’t worry about transport.  I will drop you at the church.’  

An hour later, Richard was running up the staircase of an office block in the city centre.  The security guard downstairs had told him exactly where the reporter he wanted to see was sitting.  On the first floor, he marched to the end of the large open office and stood in front of the reporter.

‘How old are you young lady?’ Richard demanded, glaring down at her across the desk.  She looked up from her laptop.

‘Oh, it’s you, what can I do for you?’

‘I asked you a question, girl,’ Richard said in a louder voice.

‘Who do you think you are to barge in here and interrogate me?’

‘Just answer a simple question, how old are you?’

‘I am twenty-five but what has my age…’

‘This makes you thirty years younger than me.’

‘So what?’

‘Anywhere in the world, old age is respected.  In Africa, it is revered.’

‘Respect is earned.’

‘Why did you write lies about what I said at the meeting?’  

‘I didn’t.’

‘So you don’t even read your own report?’

‘Is there anything I wrote that you didn’t say?’

‘That is not the point.’     

‘The facts are not the point!’  She laughed and shook her head.

‘The point is I gave you a copy of the full speech but instead you decided to harp on the off the record remarks I made.’

‘There were no off the record remarks made in that meeting.  You said it in the presence of everyone.’

‘Yes, but that was not a rally.  I was addressing the leadership of the Residents Association.  Those were in-house remarks made to civic leaders, not the public.  You were supposed to report just the official speech as you guys always do with cabinet ministers’ speeches.  So, retract what you wrote and since you are interested in my personal views, I will give them to you.’

The reporter smiled.  ‘That is not how it works sir.  You addressed an open meeting and the public has a right to know what you said.’

Richard looked at her with a mixture of contempt and pity.  ‘I want to see the editor now.’

‘He’s off today.  You will have to come tomorrow.’

‘Understandable,’ he nodded.  ‘I would also stay away from work as much as possible if I had you for a subordinate.  You and your boss will see the buttocks of a snake!’ 

He turned round and strode out of the office

***