Read More: A brief interview with Chris Mpofu
Ours is the only plane on the ground, a grotesque mammoth of technology in a vast, open desert. The heat sears my face as I descend in the 747, painting mirages the air, the dry desolation of my hometown stretching into the horizon. Across the open stretch of red earth, a pale brick building announces that we are in Bulawayo, and suddenly, the lush green forests of England feel more like home.
“I don’t like Africa.” Themba grips me as if to drag me back into the plane. His fear tugs at my hand.
I scoop him up and crush him against my chest. “You’ll be okay, son.” Then I nod at Beth and we make our way to the terminal.
Something gnaws at my insides. Something dark and menacing—the rustling of snakes in the grass.
The immigration section teems with people. For twenty years in England I’ve been surrounded by white people. They’ve become my normal. Suddenly I’m engulfed by a mass of black people, and even though they look like me, a wave of doubt ripples through my stomach to my chest and swells my head. I catch myself searching, in vain, for a white face. Did I make a mistake? I recover in time to see a young man waving us to the counter.
“Good morning, sir.” The immigration officer sticks a bony black hand out, and I hand him our passports. He seems too young to be employed—just a boy, really—let alone be in charge of border control. He scrutinizes my passport; raises it above his head, checks the front pages against the light. Licks his fingers to turn the pages, as if incriminating evidence lurks in the creases. Finally, he gives up. “Sibanda, linjani baba?” Mr. Sibanda, how are you, sir?
“Ngiyaphila, kunjani wena?” I haven’t spoken Ndebele for twenty years, but the greeting brings it flooding back like an undigested meal.
“Sibon’ususilethel’umlungu.” We see you’ve brought us a white woman.
My face swells and I feel light headed. My throat shuts down, but I’m grateful because I don’t quite know what to say.
“How long stay?” the boy asks, dismissing the need for an answer to his first question.
It took me months of weighing pros, pondering cons, to decide to return home, to spend the rest of my days working for my people. And I was happy with my decision. But for a moment I am not certain. Something about the boy’s attitude, his distance. The mass of people around us. It’s unnerving.
If my teeth squeeze any further they’ll crash into flakes inside my mouth. “We are returning home,” I manage to say.
The boy slams my passport on the counter, leans back. His nose is flat against his face. As if God slapped it on in a hurry before breaking for the Sabbath. “You have paper?”
A frail bell emits a distressed sound and propels the crowd towards the lone baggage carousel. I was right about the boy—he is out to ruin my day. I lean my face on the glass barrier, and a circle of moisture forms on it. “I was born here.”
The boy’s head almost bangs against the glass as he sits up. “Sir,” he says, a sneer finally squishing his nose shut. “British passport?” He waves my passport at me. “You are foreigner!” I wonder how he can breathe with his nose like that. “Three month!”
I balk at the thought of paying for a visa. This is my country—I was born here. It is in this country that God put me together. Beth pulls gently on my arm. “It’ll be all right, darling.” As her hair tickles my ears, I catch sight of its blondeness afresh, as if for the first time. And I see Themba, his thick, blond curls hopelessly stuck to each other. He is gripping Beth’s hand, refusing to be here.
When I come to, the boy behind the counter is still waiting, patient as death. His amusement at my dilemma is goring. So, begrudging him the pleasure, I hand over the hundred and eighty pounds and get our passports stamped—just like the other foreigners in the queue.
Outside, the sun is blinding, the heat suffocating. But the jacarandas are in full bloom, a defiant sea of purple over a parched earth. The taxi drivers accost me like they do the foreigners, all the while throwing furtive glances at Beth and Themba. Perhaps the immigration officer was right, after all. I pick the driver with what I conclude is a Ndebele accent, and am appalled at my own prejudice. Inside the taxi, he is playing Hamba Phepha Lami by the Soul Brothers. The bass guitar wails, stretching the song into a cloud of pain. The lyrics plead to a distant lover, poetry I never learned in school. I find myself moving helplessly to the music, the pain of the visa payment softening. The taxi driver’s Ndebele conversation, the music—it all meshes together, a beautiful violence inside my body, bringing me home like nothing else ever could, despite the official bullshit.
Away from the airport, the jacarandas melt into the heat, exposing a vast stretch of arid land—brown earth, brown grass, brown leaves. Not a single bird in the massive blue sky. The taxi driver asks if I am taking the Mlungu on a tour of Zimbabwe. When I tell him we have come to settle, to make this our home, his hand goes flying to his forehead, and he can’t stop scratching. He asks if men over there pay lobola for their wives, and I tell him there’s no such thing. He lets out a laugh. “So it’s free?” I tell him yes, love is free.
Then he takes me by surprise. “Ulokh’usaz’isiNdebele sibili.”
I could slap his pointy cheekbones. Why is he surprised I can still speak isiNdebele? I spoke it for twenty years before I left for England. I was punished for speaking it on the school grounds, over and over again. But even the school rules failed to wipe it out of me. So yes, I still speak it—it is my mother tongue!
Town, the centre of Bulawayo, explodes around us. Pedestrians flood the streets, walking through traffic lights—red, amber, green, it doesn’t seem to matter, they just keep moving. A flowing black lava, congealing in sudden stops as cars whiz past.
“Do they not watch the traffic lights?” Beth asks.
The taxi driver shuffles his bottom on the seat. “Robot, madam,” the ‘b’ in robot very soft. He glances briefly at Beth, then back to the road. “Sometime on, sometime off.”
Beth is quiet, but not for long. “Was it like this when you were growing up, darling?”
My stomach crawls up my rib cage and aches at the comparison. What happened to the swank men and women I grew up seeing? Back then, even the school messenger’s khaki uniform was well-pressed. When we marched for black majority rule in London, we told ourselves Zimbabwe was different from the other African countries. That we were more educated, more sophisticated, and would not sink down the black hole of misery those other countries had. It hits me now that we were deluded. The thing we thought made us different was never ours. The white man had conceived and created it. Much as this hurts, I realize it must be scary for Beth and Themba. It’s my job to break them in, make them feel safe. “It was a little less chaotic then,” I say, stroking her knee. “We’ll help things change.” The driver is watching me in the rear view mirror. I’m not sure if I see something in his eyes, but I feel it anyway. A wariness, a surveillance. Something in me feels like I’ve betrayed him.
My mother beams and breaks into a run—well, her version of a run, anyway—tripping over the uneven paving stones. She’s thinned out. My father, his potbelly still in place, drags himself behind her. He seems caught between resentment and joy, and can’t quite commit to one or the other. My body warms as I embrace Mom, catching my breath just a little when the scar on her cheek scratches my face. I hear a sniffle, and she pulls back, wiping her face with her bare hand. We stand beaming at each other as my father slinks past and collects our suitcases and bags from the driver. Beth and Mom embrace, letting out soft murmurs of contentment. Then Mom turns to Themba. “Hallo,” she says, her arms wide open. Themba lets himself be swallowed in.
My father and I shake hands. He pulls me into a hug, resting my chin on his shoulders. This is a shock. A rare moment of intimacy, so I take it. When he shakes hands with Beth, I notice a deference in him but tell myself it is just respect—it has nothing to do with her whiteness.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, not quite believing my parents’ home. They’ve moved to the suburbs. Everyone has moved to the suburbs, they say. The whites, desperate to get out when black people came to power, gave their houses away. The avocado tree takes me back to Magwegwe township, my childhood home. The house there had an avocado tree, and every time I saw the yellow flesh inside, I thought butter was made from avocados. This house has a colonial feel to it—arches that guard the front, a red roof like wild fire over the lush green orchard. In all my boyhood, I never came to the suburbs. My world began and ended in the townships, with the annual jaunt to the village. I’ve been overseas and back, and am only now just making this discovery. Regardless, even the low price for this house must’ve been beyond anything my parents could ever afford. The little money my father earned never made it home. And neither did he before the money was spent. Which left my mother to take care of us (and him) on her housemaid’s wage.
And then I have an epiphany. Maybe this is the house my mother worked in all those years. Maybe her employers just gave it to her. That’s right! A final, desperate act of contrition. Maybe. For now, though, the questions must wait—we must get inside and get to know each other.
I mold the isitshwala in my hand, make a dent in it with my thumb, and scoop the thick sauce and tshomoliya into the groove. I pop the delicious mix into my mouth, and a long, satisfied breath snakes its way through my nose.
My father has stopped eating. He is watching us. I see the thought flit across his eyes and distort his lips before he says it. “Ha! Liyasidla sibili isitshwala?”
I nod, a smile poking gently at my insides. “Yes, we eat it.”
But Themba has never taken to it. “It’s too sticky, mom!” He looks helpless as he tries to scrape the remains of the mess off his fingers.
Mom sits with her head tilted to one side, molding her isitshwala ever so slowly, as if studying its physical dynamics. She hasn’t stopped smiling since we came inside. I make the bold assumption it’s because of me. Then she asks, “Lisiphatheleni ezivela eNgilandi?”
I chuckle and gawk at her in astonishment. Old traditions don’t die, after all. As kids, whenever Mom traveled, we expected her to bring us something on her return. A packet of sweets, biscuits. Tonight she is returning the favor. She wants to know what we brought them from England. “Ha! You too?”
She nods, chuckling, and says yes, how can she not when her son, who’s been across the oceans for twenty years, is back home? She expects to live like a queen now. We all laugh, and I lob off another ball of isitshwala.
Still, there’s something strange about this gathering. I am the only child now. I never made it to my brother’s or sister’s funerals. “I’m sorry about Sifiso.” It’s been five years, but I feel something in me threaten to break. “LoNdaba,” I say, just managing to add my brother’s name before my vision fogs.
Mom moves swiftly to my side, locks an arm around my shoulders. She is not crying. Maybe she has shed enough tears. Or maybe she’s holding herself strong for me. “This disease has robbed many from us,” she says, her voice quiet and steady. “I praise Him for keeping you alive and healthy, mntanami.”
When she calls me ‘my child,’ I land. Arrive. I am home. And the flood gushes down my cheeks. Mom gathers me in, both arms around me now, her ball of isitshwala abandoned. Waves of longing rock me from head to toe. A longing for my brother and sister, whose deaths I mourned alone. A longing for home, which I have lost. I curse the immigration officer. I curse my father too. Why do they doubt? I am a child of this land.
After a while I calm, clean my face, and start to gather the dishes.
“Hayi!” Mom yells, her flapping hand signaling for me to put the dishes down. “The girl will take them.”
I insist and continue, but ‘the girl’ is already racing towards me—she heard Mom’s protests—and reaches for the plates. I swing away and carry on to the kitchen. She can’t help herself from giggling, and moves on to gather the rest.
When I return my father asks, “Kanti khonangale alilamankazana?”
I tell him no, in England most people don’t have housemaids—they wash their dishes and clean their houses. Suddenly I realize that he asked about us over there. Really? When did I belong over there? In England they used to ask me about over there. What do you do over there at Christmas? Do you eat turkey over there? I am here now. But that question hounds me, like a wasp over sugar.
A few days later, Uncle Mnyama and Trymore, the closest thing to family besides my parents, come to greet us. Uncle Mnyama stoops through the door, with a steadying hand on the elbow from Trymore. He cracks his mouth open to reveal a handful of brown teeth. “Mntanami!” he says, his voice halting, weak.
I squeeze his frail body, savor the prickle of his beard on my cheeks. After a long spell, he breaks free, gives Beth a curious look, and extends a shaky hand. “How medemu?” he says. I’m struck by his deference to Beth, just like my father’s.
“Very well, thank you,” Beth says, nodding vigorously as she speaks, gripping Uncle Mnyama’s hand in both of hers. A nervous smile injects a tinge of red into her face. “Very happy to meet you.”
“Yes, yes!” Uncle Mnyama laughs and coughs at the same time, his head bouncing precariously on his thin neck as if Beth just cracked a really good joke.
Beth presses Themba to her side. “This is our son Themba.”
“Ahaaa! Themba!” Uncle Mnyama bends down to give Themba a hug. “Kunjani mfanami?”
Themba squints at Uncle Mnyama. “What?”
Trymore and Uncle Mnyama explode with laughter.
Beth, her face fully red now, turns to me. “What did he say?”
My face is burning. I don’t know if I should translate for Themba and Beth, or tell Uncle Mnyama and Trymore to stop laughing. I pick Themba up, ruffle his curls. “Khulu says how are you?”
“Oh,” Themba says.
“Tell Uncle you’re fine, thank you,” Beth says.
Themba holds his head up high, his back straight, and announces to the room, “I’m fine, thank you!”
Even Mom and my father are laughing now.
“Kanti kakhulum’isiNdebele?” Uncle Mnyama asks.
I wish I had heeded Beth’s advice to teach Themba how to speak Ndebele. ‘My son is a British citizen,’ I’d insisted. I remain silent.
“Ah, usiz’olunganani.” Uncle Mnyama’s disappointment and sadness seep out in beads of sweat from his face as he shakes his head, his eyes downcast.
A cloud of shame closes in on me. Beth’s puzzled face bounces between Uncle Mnyama and me, and I watch helplessly as Themba clings to her, his face squished against her thigh.
Trymore approaches Themba. “Hallo,” he says with a nasal voice and extends his hand for a handshake.
Themba breaks loose from Beth and stares at Trymore. “You talk funny,” he says.
Muffled laughter comes from my father, sending Trymore’s hand back to his side, the scar on his upper lip puckered. I remember Mom telling me that when Trymore was born with clefts in his upper lip, a sangoma was summoned. A small, wrinkled man with black teeth and a leopard skin around his head, the sangoma threw a handful of bones on the floor and declared, Uloyiwe! As soon as the sangoma confirmed that Trymore was cursed, Uncle Mnyama sacked his wife and told her to take her child with her. But Mom intervened. She advised him to take Trymore to Bulawayo—there was a white doctor there who looked after such children. A year later, Trymore’s lips were repaired. Uncle Mnyama was pleased, but refused to let his wife come back.
I wrap my hand around Themba’s shoulders. “Uncle Trymore had surgery on his lips when he was a baby, that’s why he talks like this.”
Retreating to Beth’s thigh, Themba asks, “What is surgery?”
I wish thunder and lightning would come, drown out Themba’s questions. I wish the sky would open up and pour down in that ferocious way it did when I was growing up, so that we will have to rush and make sure there is nothing outside that needs to be brought in. What comes instead is silence, its edges jagged like the wounds of a mopane tree, poked and scraped livid by caterpillars. I go on my knees, so that my head is at Themba’s height. “Do you remember when you fell and cut your leg and had stitches at the hospital?”
Themba looks puzzled. “He cut his leg?”
“No.” I decide to hurry up and get to the point. “When Uncle Trymore was born, there were holes in his lip, so the doctors had to put stitches to pull them together.”
Themba remains silent, his face looking assaulted by the idea of putting stitches to the lips. I think he has understood, but he doesn’t give me the satisfaction of a verbal confirmation. Instead, he turns and rubs his nose on Beth’s thigh.
A week later, my father and I take the bus to Entumbane. I read about this new township exploding into war as rival freedom fighters exchanged gunfire from their demobilization units. The battle acquired the township’s name. Became a legend. I remember Mom’s accounts of how they hid under the beds—gunfire crackling for miles. I look for scars, for bullet holes. Anything to connect me to the legend. I see none. Just as well, because we came here to look for a goat to celebrate my return home. And my father is on a bragging fest. He tells everyone that I am from England, where I was head of all the country’s universities! They nod in that slow fashion that says I have no idea what you’re saying but it sounds important. I don’t bother to correct my father’s claims—the explanation is too long to be worthwhile. Many won’t understand anyway. Truthfully, though, I don’t want to piss on my father’s party—this closeness is so novel I can’t afford to waste it. This is the attention I craved as a boy, and even though he never looked at my school reports, and even as I know he hasn’t a clue what I really did in England, I’m just happy he’s proud of me. He inspects the goats with a staggering intensity of focus. His lips squishing around as if he can taste the meat already.
Is he really proud of me? I watch and wonder. His last fight with Mom plays in slow motion. The lifting of the hot iron from the table. Its arc through the air. Take your child and go! And the thud and sizzle as it lands against Mom’s cheek. The scar on her cheek scratches my face again just as her scream jolts me back to here, where my father is still inspecting the goats, searching meticulously for the perfect one.
“Nansi.” He points at his selection, looking at me as if we’ve been in constant conversation all along.
The goat—a fat, brown specimen with a white patch splitting its face—twitches when I look at it, and a pang of guilt flits through my stomach. I never felt remorse when chickens and goats were slaughtered at home in my boyhood days. Relieved my father didn’t notice my little jump at Mom’s ancient scream, I nod my agreement with his choice.
A hushed exchange takes place between my father and the goat seller. When they settle, my father turns to me and says, “Fifty.”
I am ambushed. Why was I so stupid? Did I really think he was paying for the goat? To hide my disappointment, I jerk sideways and scramble for my wallet. I know I have money, but the little boy in me was hoping, just this once, he would buy the goat for me. I pay the man and we head for the bus stop. The goat will be delivered on Saturday morning, the day of the party.
Uncle Mnyama and Trymore arrive early on Saturday morning. They are here to help with the slaughter. We go out to the backyard, where the goat is tied to a tree.
“What are we going to call him, daddy?” Themba asks.
“Good heavens,” Beth says, gathering her hair back. “I knew this was a bad idea.”
My father’s smile crumbles at Beth’s displeasure, and his eyes jump sheepishly from her to me and back again. I know that he is putting this on for us. This is his way of showing us that he is happy we are home. I turn to Themba. “Don’t get attached to him, son, he’s our dinner.”
Themba screams. A searing sound that threatens to raise blisters on my skin. He takes off towards the house, and I follow. I hold him close, sway him until he settles. “Do you remember the chicken that you ate last night?”
Themba sniffs, looks up. “Yeah.”
“Someone killed it for us to eat. But you don’t have to see any of it, okay?”
He starts crying again. Beth yanks him off my arms and takes him inside, stomping awkwardly. I stand there watching, feeling stupid.
I find them lying on the bed, Beth cuddling Themba close to her chest. He is no longer crying, but every now and then a leftover sob breaks through and he snorts. There’s a moist redness on Beth’s cheeks. “I can’t do this,” she says.
A crow’s harsh caw scratches through the open window. The birds must be circling, the smell of blood too strong to keep them away. I wonder what Beth will say if I explain that to her. Tell her this is the natural cycle. One animal dies so another can live. Tell her that chickens in England spend weeks pecking away at grain in cages, oblivious of their future as chicken nuggets, for little children to dip in barbecue sauce. I don’t believe one hundred percent of what I’m thinking, but in this moment, I want to snap her out of it. I want to tell her that this is Africa, my home, and will she at least make an effort to get used to it? After all, I adapted to the English ways. Instead, I reach over and stroke her arm. “We only have to do this today, honey,” I say. “When we have our own place this won’t happen again.”
We lie quietly in the awkward silence, the butchers’ voices wafting through the window. They remark at how fat the goat is, and how easily its hide is separating from the flesh. Laughter breaks out as Trymore says something I don’t quite catch, and the groans and sounds of heaving continue. They sound happy. Like the men did in the village when they knew that the monotony of dried vegetables would finally break. I have a strong urge to be part of that. I want to join them, so I slip off the bed and make my way outside.
The glassy, puzzled look on the goat’s face catches me off guard, but I recover quickly. They’ve spread the goat’s hide, fixed it to the ground with wooden pegs. When my father slits the abdomen and reams of intestine fall out, he has an intense look of satisfaction that is all his own. A private, personal pleasure.
I offer to help and they break out laughing. “Awusoz’ukhale?” Uncle Mnyama asks, his brown teeth invidious despite the smile.
When I tell him that I never cried as a boy when we slaughtered goats back in the village, they laugh again, sharing a common understanding I can only yearn for. I get down to a crouch and extend an open hand to my father. He hands me the knife, the slow motion of their puzzled gazes propelling me on. I get to work on the intestines. They come off easily, intact. Not a pebble of goat shit in sight. When I drop them into a bucket, a warmth spreads through my spine. I deliberately avoid their stares, keeping my eyes on the intestines, and enjoy a private smile. It’s a victory lap I’m taking, and it is singularly salubrious. Next, I lift the liver and search for the gallbladder, that bag of bile that could poison the meat in an instant. I take my time, staying close to the liver, of which I carve out some excess to avoid splitting the gallbladder open. Then my father sneezes. A thunderous tumult that tips his balance. He knocks my hand. Just briefly. But it is enough. I burst the sac, and the vile green liquid splashes into the cavity that once contained the intestines.
Their gasps come at the same time as mine, the first understanding we share. The burning in my stomach, however, and the stab of pain in my side, are mine alone. Their voices are distant, muffled sounds I can’t quite make out. They are frantic, panicked, as if someone just collapsed. I come to as someone snatches the knife from my hand. […]
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Chris is a Zimbabwean-Canadian emerging writer who lives in Saskatoon. He is working on a novel that explores the experiences of those who have left their countries of origin to settle elsewhere. One of his stories appears in Little Rose Magazine, and another is due to be published in Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora. He has had stories shortlisted in the Writers’ Union of Canada Annual Short Prose Competition and the CBC Short Story Contest.
Read More: A brief interview with Chris Mpofu