DIONE R. CHOTO
Regents of the Diaspora
My name is Tonderai. I am nine years old. I live in the village of Mupasi in Chivu. Chivu is in Zimbabwe. It is rural areas. Our village is small, and we do not have much. My clothes are not new. I only get something new at Christmas. So I have one year with same clothes I wear every day. I work in the fields, with dust, crops – also animals, and the school I attend is small, with too much of us pupils. Too much of us, too short of everything else, like chairs, desks, books, and teachers.
But I never care about any of that. I love my home. I don’t think I can ever leave it. I don’t understand anyone who would want to leave. Why? They don’t have what we have here, in the city or in that place Joburg where many other boys like me have run away to.
I think they don’t have old torn clothes in the city or in Joburg. I think boys don’t have to grow black in the dry field, and in school all the children have books. But there is something missing there, something only my village has.
I wish I could have watercolours or paints and draw the picture of it, this “something.” Then I would show it to everyone who dreams of leaving. I would show them my picture of life and tell them to throw away the lying picture of dreams in their head.
My Aunt Treasure ran away once. The elders talked of a man she was in love with, a man who painted the dreams in her head. Something is wrong with Aunt Treasure – not just that she ran away to the city with a stranger; she is different. Everyone in the village says she’s wild, even my grandparents.
But she came back. We were at my grandparents’ kraal, and she just walked over. She had her little suitcase and everything, and she was crying. My grandparents – many people – didn’t show gladness to see her. They believed in the “something” of the village like me. I guess it had hurt them very much that Aunt Treasure had chosen that other picture of dreams instead of being happy with all that she had already.
They should have just let go of that hurt, because soon they got a hurt much worse.
My mother was not at all like Aunt Treasure. She was the good daughter. The village loved and respected her. Everyone said my father was very lucky to have got such a wonderful young wife. My grandparents were very proud of her. No one could understand it when she didn’t come home one day.
At first, my father was sad. He was so sad he didn’t leave his bedroom for a long time. Then his friends missed him at the Party. He is the chairman of a committee in Zanu-PF. It was a time of urgent politics, they said, and they needed him. It was always a time of urgent politics. Even if I had watercolours and paints, I could never draw over it.
I don’t know just when Papa got the idea that my mother had done what Aunt Treasure had done before and run away with a man. Every day she did not come home, it grew. And his friends from the Party made it worse. Even my own friends – well, one friend actually. A boy my age, but so heavy into ZANU logos on shirts already, a very proud ZANU youth. Together, they added all their own mad ideas, making Papa angry, convincing him of my mother’s lying nature, convincing the whole family.
They broke the hearts of Gogo and Khulu, my grandparents.
I was a baby when Mama disappeared. Papa tells me I was almost two years old. Now, only Aunt Treasure doesn’t believe Mama ran away. All the time, she tries to get people to be like her and not believe.
One day, Papa became so angry at Aunt Treasure, he broke the table in my grandparents’ house and shouted at her. He yelled on top of his voice, spitting in Aunt Treasure’s face as he asked, “Then where? Where is she, if she didn’t run away?”
I was scared, and I know Aunt Treasure got scared as well by his loud voice and mad eyes. But she wouldn’t be quiet. She carried on talking about what she suspected. That his friends from the Party had done it, to get rid of Mama because she was against their urgent politics, and they needed Papa not to be corrupted.
Wild Aunt Treasure and her stories are still hard to believe. Like the people say, hard to believe for deserted sons, an awfully hurt husband, and disappointed parents.
I read a magazine article about missing people. I read those magazines…something like…
Pieces of disappearance. Cracks left behind.
Our village is true life. Unspoiled landscape. Unspoiled love. And whatever the reason, I am sure of this: that day, late coming from town on household errands, by what they tell me is fate or by choice, waiting for the bus, my mother lost her life.
Aunt Treasure well knew…what it was to lose a life...
The brief time Treasure was in Johannesburg, she experienced far more than any small-village girl should be exposed to. Too young, too rash, she came to know very quickly the consequences of naïve youth and unchecked rashness. Particularly, she came to know Samirah. Trapped high up in the towers of Hillbrow, Samirah was the epitome of all that could go wrong with naiveté, the dreams of the immigrant, dreams hoped for against the reality of what actually is.
Treasure heard it plenty a dull morning, lazy and hazy, together shut up in the cluttered conglomerates of buzzing Hillbrow – the story of how Samirah had ended up the way she's ended up. It seemed to lighten a part of her soul, this telling, time and time again. And Treasure had taken to daydreaming of what it must have been like. The day Samirah thought to go dream chasing.
It would have been a hot summer's day in Treasure's mind. A hot summer's day...with a storm approaching..
They began as fluffy wisps of weightless cotton. Ghost-like, intangible, they floated across the sky delicately. Watching them, one could be tempted to think them special spirits – dragons and dragonflies – god-animals of some Hindu legend. But too soon, they bulged and darkened, becoming ominous, the inner city below boxed in a frame of gloom as they showed threat of a thunderstorm.
From her seat in the grocery shop – it wasn’t a large shop – shoe-box size and nearer outside than inside – Samirah was privy to that threat. Not too long and the rushing showers would fall. The filth of the streets would be brewed with mud, making it more filthy. Hawkers would draw hastily stripped, from some place or other, lengthy plastics over themselves and their wares, but never quit the streets – in all weathers, through all seasons, business was business.
Taxi drivers would blare their horns still louder, and at every stop umbrella merchants would sprout, assured of sales.
Usually, Samirah was not fond of the coming of the rain. In spite of all the clustering of shops in the crowded district, there was no being spared the rush of pedestrians who flocked into their own shop to shelter from the damp. Sometimes, the chance visitors purchased items or made use of the tele-facilities, most times they pondered pointlessly around the shop, merely disguising their true intent of being indoors – but either/or, Samirah was not fond of the bustle.
And although her uncle usually took over at such times, she still needed to assist and was, consequently, encumbered, because it was a task undertaken in conjunction with that of being caretaker to the uncle’s three young children – two small boys and a baby girl.
However, on this occasion, surveying the outside in a lull, its glum was not matched within her. Her feelings were exactly contrary. She could not have been more sprightly, more joyful. Heart-palpating excitement brightened her to near exploding.
Today was the day she’d been praying for since she’d come down from Africa’s Northeast. Four years, she’d been living on the benevolence of mother’s brother and his wife. Four years she’d stifled, till she altogether lost sight of the dreams she’d had upon arrival.
She’d been fresh from technikon and looking towards great things. There was famine where she was from, greater hardship, and few promises for the young. Here she’d had a conviction it would be better.
It had not been – at least not vastly so.
Shut up with little ones, drawn in and constrained into employment beneath true qualification, desperate depression had been easy to fall into. But a different day had seen the sun arise, and depression, not to mention desperation, were the furthest thing from mind and soul presently.
Samirah cast eyes to the clock on a wall opposite. Her heart was winged.
The moment drew ever nearer.
The children were playing. The baby was contentedly pulling on a plastic tit, and the uncle and aunt were hard at work – he was making repairs to a phone; she had gone out to order merchandise. It was with great restraint Samirah did not there and then jump up to get on with her plans. Patiently, she waited.
Tick, went the clock. Nothing could faze her.
The noise, the pollution bombarding from the mere threshold-away exterior were not an outright annoyance, only vague disturbance; the calls of the many loudly bargaining young men barely registered – as if of a distant dream.
Even when dissension stirred up among the packs, she remained disinterested, shut away in secret gladness.
Her uncle was the one rattled. He didn’t like such disturbance just outside his shop. In severe error of judgment, he tried to intervene. The riled packs became more unruly. He was just another one of those be-robed strangers to them, a cackling nuisance to be shoved aside.
The incident came to stones and blows, and there was her uncle trapped in the epicentre.
In a state of unconcerned, mad euphoria, Samirah assisted him from the gravel, bruised and bleeding. From some place in the sky came a deep growl, a menacing growl distinctive of an affronted deity.
It wasn’t long before the police descended upon the scene. Samirah gently wiped the blood from her uncle’s face with the hem of her long robes. All she could think of was the time.
Her uncle’s English, after nine entire years, was still bad. With the state of agitation he’d been rendered into, it was barely comprehensible. The police could not understand what had taken place. Property had been damaged, innocent walkers-by injured, and every finger seemed to point to him.
Samirah fell back as they took him. The children yelped loudly, and all was in disarray, yet she was thoroughly contented, smiling even. Happy, happy, happy, because, she saw by the hands of the clock, it was time.
They hustled her uncle into a van, and she receded into one of the back rooms.
The bathroom welcomed her like a shrine. Before the edge-rusted mirror, she slipped off her habitual headdress. Her satiny Northeastern hair, neatly combed back, emerged to the unaccustomed feel of air. Revealing jeans and a tank top hidden beneath, she stripped the robes from her body.
In a moment closely following, she edged out of the cramped bathroom, walked as if on a cloud. Out of the small shop, she strolled towards a premeditated destination. All around her could have been nonexistent. She saw, heard, and cared for nothing. Nothing could penetrate her reclusive bubble of extreme well-being.
As promised, the man she loved was waiting for her at the agreed location. He stood arm rested on the rooftop of a fashionable car. He was smiling broadly and motioned for her to get in the front passenger seat.
They reunited within with kisses and more petting than Samirah was accustomed to.
When finally he released her, she was startled by the presence of others in the vehicle. Three men.
Friends of his?
Jarringly, all sense rushed in. She was fully aware of everything now; most of all the frightful booming of the skies. She turned to the man she loved.
“These people you’re organising me to design clothes for…they’re well known in the fashion industry?”
There was the barest hint of snorting in the back. For a shadow of a moment, there was unease on the face of her beau, but quickly he pasted his brightest of smiles that dispelled any ill feeling.
“Ja. Ja. Big, big people. Don’t worry, sweetie. I’m going to make all your dreams come true.”
The interior lock system beeped on at the push of a button.
Almost at once, the rain came down in a torrent. The clouds had given way.
The car revved into motion.
Caught in this daydream, Treasure walks on continuously as though Chivu could never contain enough bush to satisfy her aimless steps. The commotion catches her by surprise – being back at the village catches her by surprise. When had the aimless steps found direction to get her back here?
Neighbours were exchanging visits by the flock. Gossip was afloat.
A prodigal daughter was returned to the village. An infamous girl who'd left long ago.
For the briefest moment, the barest hint of hope sparks in Treasure that it is her long lost sister – gone ten years and counting now. But it isn't. Though of the same soil, this girl was of an entirely different cast.
Larry's driving too fast – as always. Zipping us along in his panther black Porsche at dizzying speed. The top is down. I draw the brilliant red scarf tighter about my head, trying to keep what order I can of the long dark tress fighting to be let loose in the wind. I have my other arm outstretched, limp across the open window, my manicured hand feeling every caress of the rushing warm air. My head is tilted back on the leather seat and the gentle heat of the mid-morning California sun completely enwraps me, its rays reflecting through and off of the vivid Versace redness of my scarf as well as the Dolce sunglasses covering my carefully made-up eyes.
The tops of the tall beach trees lining the sparse, wide road and the puffs of white cloud against a clear, blue sky are all that are in my immediate vision.
Everything is so bright, so tangible, so solid. But I’m not. I don't feel real. I haven't felt it in a long time now.
If I take a mirror, I know what I will see. A perfect face, a perfect figure – fashionably dressed, always – but feeling nothing more than a plastic doll. If I pick up a magazine or flip through the entertainment and fashion channels on TV, I'll see a glamorous girl, an adored and respected supermodel, an icon on the rise, and a wealthy socialite – yet empty – lost and overwhelmed in my own gigantic individuality.
Ten years. It's taken me ten whole years to get to this place. Because it's not probable, right? Who can live without a past?
Yes, that's right. I don't have a past. Not a full past, like most people do. Before these last ten years, before I was ChiChi “the star,” there's just a jumble of vagueness I can never make any sense of. And for the longest while – ten whole years – I just quit trying.
When Larry found me – or should I say, when Larry found and made me – he said that it was what I had wanted more than anything: to forget. I wanted to be independent of where I'd come from; I wanted the freedom to find and create myself. What a blessing it was, the breakdown that finally had me lose it all – my whole life before California.
Many people, I'm sure, wish it could happen to them. That a trigger in the brain could be manipulated by various emotions and psychological factors and poof, just like that, they remember nothing of where they are from and who they had been. All they have is the now and the future where they and only they (not heritage, not the past) could decide who they became.
It happened to me. And I enjoyed ten years of such untainted individuality. But, who can live without a past, right?
Layer by layer, my harmonious individuality is unravelling. The night sweats, the strange and haunting dreams are becoming more frequent. Day after day, I'm slipping into something less...corporeal. I'm like a ghost.
“You okay, babe?” Larry takes his eyes off the road for a second to look me over. The concern is there in his voice, but I can't see it in his gaze. The bright hazel eyes I've come to know so well are shrouded by sunglasses.
I want to reply, like I always do, that I'm fine, even when I'm not, but I can't muster the lie today. My head is swimming. Each thing starts to melt away...the trees, the skyline, the air, the car, even Larry...
All at once, I'm in the bush, at a clearing, secluded and silent. A young boy is standing there in front of a washed up white Chevy. He's a strapping teenager – dark skinned and dark-eyed, dressed in khaki shorts, worn out boots, and a t-shirt. He's nothing at all like the polished, hazel-eyed Larry. He swings a set of keys in his long-fingered hands.
“Babe, you're freaking me out. Hey, babe.” It's Larry talking again. But I barely catch a word. The youthful boy is so vivid in my mind, and when he speaks, the words drown out all else.
Chipo, he whispers softly, but it's a consuming whisper. Chipo...I'm still waiting.
Tears prick my eyes. I ask Larry to stop the car.
“I have to go back,” I cry to him, once I manage to gulp back a sob. My voice is strangled and unnatural even to my own ears. “I have to go back to Africa.”
If you want to see Africa, more than anything, open your heart. It's not only about the sights, sounds, or smells; it's about emotions and a soul's full of depth. I was born with an open heart – I think, most Africans are. It's only time that sets the theme, only time that determines whether a heart remains open or becomes dried up and shut under the oftentimes harsh heat of the African sun. Growing up, I know my heart got scorched. It didn't just shut; it shrivelled. Perhaps, that's why I forgot...everything...
Now I've returned. I'm back here, back home in the rural areas of The Houses of Stone.
I'm sitting in a small house burdened by decay and age. It is my father's house. He built it just before I was born as a present for my mother, when he was still robust with youth and love. It's coming back to me in fractions. He'd loved my mother – some might say too terribly. The effects of that terrible love are visible. He is a spent man with burnt skin, eyes sunken and permanently red-rimmed from too much drink, a shaggy prematurely grey beard covering most of his face.
He's perched on a stool, somewhat awkwardly because of an out of shape back and damaged leg. The hard wood walking stick that has always seemed a part of him is never too far off, resting close against a wall.
It seems I've been hiding out in here since my not-so-welcome arrival last night. I am labelled the girl whose betrayal devastated an entire community. The girl who betrayed everybody and sold her soul for an air ticket and a Green Card.
Chipo. Chipo. I'm still waiting.
The voice and vision of the boy standing beside the old white Chevy are still overwhelming, even sitting here in front of my father, remembering how he broke his back in an accident at the mine where he worked, and how my mother left him shortly after that...left us. I must have been about twelve years old. She couldn't take his depression, moods, and drinking – or the poverty and shame that came with it. So she left me to deal with it, to deal with him.
Yes, the broken back I remember so well. It cost me my youth. Of course, the memory comes back easily. But the leg...that damaged leg...there is something about it. It weighs on me. I should remember...why don't I remember?
Chipo. Chipo. It's the boy again in my head. I'm still waiting. He continues to say.
I rise to my feet. I’m making to go out because I need to find him. But I don't get very far. An old woman is standing in the doorway. She's got a little boy behind her. He must be ten or eleven.
There is a young man as well, hanging close about the old lady and boy. Though youthful – no more than a teen – he is hard-faced, unyielding as though embittered decades beyond his youth. He stands aloof as the others enter.
“Amai Tami, svi'kai,” is my father's polite greeting. But the old woman is not inclined to politeness at all. Her already wrinkled face is screwed up in anger and...grief?
“The Destroyer. So, you've finally come to view your handiwork.” She practically spits the words at me. “Be happy to know Destroyer that after her husband – my son-in-law – was killed in the raid, my dear daughter Tamera took her own life. Look...look here...see...” She pushes the small boy with her into the foreground. “All that is left of them.”
I can't breathe. I feel suffocated.
Chipo. Chipo. I'm still waiting.
My eyes burn with tears. After weeks of battling, in that moment, I suddenly recognise the haunting voice.
“Tashinga!” I utter the name more as a groan than anything else. The tears are flowing freely now, and I literally cannot breathe. Grieved by recognition and memory, I shove past Amai Tami and her grandson.
Out in the openness of the barren fields, I fall to the ground. The earth is hard and hot, the dust heavy and choking.
There had been a Tashinga. The most perfect person I had ever known. Bright and beautiful like a rare desert flower. He'd been sweet and promising. We'd gone to school together and had shared vision. On the last day of secondary school, after we'd written our final exams, I was supposed to meet him in the clearing at the back of the village. His uncle had been a mechanic. He'd given Tashinga a beat up ancient Chevy for his eighteenth birthday. And that old Chevy was supposed to drive Tashinga and I fast out of this village that day.
But there had been a middle-aged white tobacco farmer, a young wife, and an even faster car.
“I want you to go with her to America,” the tobacco farmer had said. Troy – that was his name. Troy was a wealthy tobacco farmer – the last of the white farmers in the region – that only because his ties to the ruling party Zanu-PF went deep...pockets, wallets, barrels deep. And he had an amazing offer.
Comrade Nixon – that was my Papa. As deep in ties as Troy was with the ruling Zanu-PF, my father, Comrade Nixon, was just as deep with the opposition party MDC.
For America, all I had to do was tell Troy when the next secret MDC meeting would be.
I left Tashinga waiting. I told Troy all he needed to know. And the very next day, a fast Mercedes drove me to the airport in Harare with young Mrs. Troy.
I never saw a broken Tashinga skulk away in disappointment only to attend the MDC meeting to be captured in the raid that followed, never to be heard or seen again. I never saw my father's leg be ripped apart by a bullet from a shot gun, or Amai Tamera's son-in-law fall in a dead heap from blunt trauma to the head. And I never got to see the fire that was ignited. A fire that burned the community granary to the ground. I was too busy speeding off to my new life where I would, literally, forget all.
“What are you doing?”
I jump, startled, stepping away from the rusted Chevy.
The boy is looking up at me with questioning eyes. The dry bush behind him almost alight with the glow of the orange-red fieriness of the setting MaShonaland sun. It is Amai Tami's grandson.
“I – I was just having a look around,” I reply self-consciously. The group of children – which the boy had been part of – had left the clearing some minutes ago. I hadn't expected any of them to return. Late afternoon after late afternoon, I watched them play around the abandoned old car that had once been my ticket out of here. None of them ever returned once the play finished, and they left. Today, I finally got up the courage to do some exploring of my own once they disappeared into the surrounding bush on energetic, pattering bare feet. But a minute after laying a tentative hand on the body of the vehicle that held so many memories for me, here was Amai Tami's grandson.
He moves nearer to me, curiously. For no logical reason, I'm nervous. But he doesn't do anything untoward. He just jumps into the back of the vehicle and grabs a small dirty ball.
“Here it is!” is the triumphant announcement. He holds it up to the changing light then jumps out the vehicle. “Lucky ball.” He's bouncing it around now. “Why do you like it so much here?” He barely shifts his attention from his play as he asks the question. “I see you sometimes when we play. You stand behind the trees and don't do anything. Why is that?”
He props himself onto the soiled bonnet of the car. He's fidgeting with the ball, but waiting for an answer.
“This – this car. It was my friend's car.” Finally, I reply.
“Where is your friend now?”
I picture Tashinga at the meeting, picture the raid – the war vets grabbing him, beating and abducting him to Lord only knew where. I imagine the chaos...the fire...his fear.
“Gone. He's gone.”
For a brief moment, there is only the soft thud of the ball between us.
“My name is Reuben,” the boy says. “Amai Tami is my Gogo.”
“I know who you are, Reuben.”
“And I know who you are...Chipo.”
Chipo, yes, that's me. And Chipo is so heavy; can there ever be any more room for the lightness of ChiChi? Who am I, really? Where does Chipo begin and ChiChi end? Or ChiChi begin and Chipo end?
And is it a must that one take over and the other be completely drowned?
I think back to the last couple of weeks. Weeks, it seems, I've spent trying to redeem Chipo and eradicate ChiChi. The relentless search for Tashinga – personal investigations and interviews to bring back what I lost in a bush clearing just over ten years ago. The communicating with my father, trying to find a common ground that has never been present even prior to the last ten years, making moves towards forgiving and being forgiven. Topped with the petition to get the granary rebuilt. That after all this time, villagers would not have to travel to surrounding areas to process their maze-meal. The hard, unpredictable farming was enough without the added pressure/cost of travel.
It was a process of general healing, though not completely working out all round. The granary’s growing promise and making amends with my father were progressing well enough; only, headway with finding Tashinga was becoming more impossible to achieve each day.
“My mother killed herself, you know,” Reuben says. “She drank poison. Gogo says she found her, choking in the hut she'd shared with my Papa. He died too, you know. But before Mama. He was murdered by...well...Gogo says not to say by who. It's not safe. My friends ask me all the time. They dance around, they shout, sometimes they whisper; asking me if I’m not always sad about what happened, if I don't think about it all the time and cry. But I like soccer and playing with my friends. I’m gonna be a soccer star, baba!” Here he leaps from his perch and displays some slick foot work with his little ball. “The best, baba – haha!” He winks and I smile.
“You see Chipo, it's not a great thing that happened to my parents, but how can I cry every day and be sad? I had Mama and Papa – I think about them sometimes, ja, but now I have soccer!” He carries on with the crafty footwork. I cheer him on, quite impressed. I’m awestruck. It's not only the footwork. It's him as an entirety. Reuben accepts himself. All of himself. Past and present merge in him – heritage and identity, and neither one consumes him. Perfectly balanced.
He is with his playmates earlier than usual. It's mid-morning. I’m there as well, in the background, wondering why all these kids are running amok on and about a deserted old Chevy in the middle of the drought-gripped bush when they should be in school. Spotting me watching, mind working, Reuben draws me out.
“Teachers are on strike – no school today,” he answers my silent question. “Come. Play with us.”
We do more than play. At some point, one of them brings a book to me. She wants me to help her finish the story. It's a great story they've been reading in class, but with the strike, she doesn't know when their teacher would ever help them finish the story. As I read with her, the others become intrigued. Soon we're having a lesson in the bush. These kids and I gathered around Tashinga's car. And to me, they're pure Africa. Raw, yet infinitely malleable. With the right motivation, they could be like Reuben. Scarred, but not charred beyond positive identity. With these kids in the bush, huddled around Tashinga's car, I have hope for Africa. I have hope for them. I have hope for me.
Q & A with ChiChi
Q: There is a glow about you. Can we tribute that to married life?
A: (laughs) Among other things! But, yes, married life is certainly a factor, I would say.
Q: Was the wedding all you ever dreamed?
A: I've dreamed many things, really – especially as a child growing up in rural MaShonaland. Yes, visions of the perfect wedding included in that. Though on a small scale. Not as many girls here would, I think. Because, more than anything, I dreamed of freedom.
Q: Would you say you have that freedom now?
A: In all honesty, what I used to think freedom was has actually turned out to be very different from what I've found it to be. I left my village at seventeen. Grabbed the best opportunity to get as far as possible as quickly as possible. I thought that was freedom – leaving everything behind and burying it so deep like it never existed.
It's taken time; it's taken a lot from me, but it's a reality in my life that freedom is not just something external, it's within more than anything. Sometimes there's no greater prisoner than the mind and heart.
Q: Many people say Larry made you. Now it seems you've married the man who made you. Where is your own identity in that?
A: I thought that...before…that he made me. Now though...I guess, what I mean is...I came to this country as a companion to another girl I barely knew. I was young and green as anything. It was too easy for me to become overwhelmed. That first year…I lost it. I won't sugarcoat anything. I had a breakdown. I was still having a breakdown when Larry's agency found me. In fact, when I first met Larry, I was lost – literally. My mind wandered while on the bus. I missed my stop – thought I'd missed my whole life right there! Complete panic and turmoil. So, you can imagine. Anyway, it was very good fortune to have met like that. But, truly, it was only my career he shaped. I – me, myself – I chose to become who I became. We all have that option. Not career-wise, romantically, or anything like that...just personally. No one and nothing is my identity. They're only an extension of it – not it.
Q: Tell us then, why Teachers Without Borders?
A: In a word? Faith. Faith and an open heart. Believing that salvation is possible. One act, no matter how minuscule, is better than no act at all.
Q: Did going back to Africa change you?
For a few weeks, I’m not a supermodel. I’m not a wife or a mother of a small baby. I am more than that. Here, back home, for this period of time, I am the hand of God. I am involved in the village life, teaching the children, imparting to them not only knowledge but making sure their hearts stay open.
My lessons are over for the day. I take Reuben by the hand. He takes hold of another child, and that child does the same. So on, until we are one long human chain. We head out to the bush. In our favourite clearing, the old white Chevy is inviting as always. We break up into a cheerful little cluster as we approach.
Reuben is showing me the features on the little digital camera one of the other volunteers gifted him with. I’m about to exclaim encouragingly, but I’m stopped short. We're in the clearing now, and what's frozen me stiff is that the Chevy is not standing solitary as expected.
A young man is there beside it, running firm tapered hands curiously over the body. He looks up at me, and I feel as though I’m staring into the face of a ghost.
The smooth brightness of a fresh face. Dancing eyes that sparkle like diamonds.
“Tashinga?” Stepping forward, I’m breathless with every mixture of emotion. Relief. Joy. And an overwhelming love that had never died.
He smiles at me.
“Sisi Chipo – is that you? Ah! Wow!”
I'm taken up in his embrace deliriously.
“It's me,” he says once he's released me from the brief hug, “Tondie – Tonderai. Tash's little brother. You remember me? I was quite small when you left. I've been studying in Harare. Thought I'd finally pay the old hood a visit. Man, it's been too long.”
Scarcely do I register the companion he's with – the hard-faced youth from the visit of Amai Tami. Always wearing the ZANU-PF logo clothing. Though that doesn't impress on me at all at this time. I am otherwise transfixed.
“Tondie,” I stretch out the name slowly, “not Tashinga. You – you look just like him, when – when...”
“Ja. I hear that a lot. I barely remember him, but I’m his mirror apparently. How funny is that!”
“Hey! Hey Chipo!” Reuben is bobbing up and down excitedly. “Let me take a picture. Stand together, by the car. Come on Chipo, it's gonna be a good one. Stand together!”
Q & A with ChiChi
Q: Did going back to Africa change you?
A: Many of our lives are centred on identity. Many people ask themselves, who am I? Some travel the world trying to find themselves. But it's all very basic once you get a handle on it. Please allow me to sound like a guru for a minute here! (laughs)
I believe identity comprises of only this: individuality, heritage, purpose. And all these combine to give a person a unique mandate.
Look at it this way: individuality may be your personality, social standing, interaction or expression. It's who you are. And you can at any point alter this. Heritage is where you come from. You cannot alter this. But the two, individuality and heritage, can be brought into harmony with each other to create purpose. Purpose being your work, dreams, serving and being served by the people you value, plus general human interaction. And once you understand this, then identity is formed. You know who you are, and your mandate on earth is clear.
Did going back to Africa change me? No. It made me.
Tondie prepares to pose easily. It's me who's awkward. But finally, we get into a good position, picture-perfect position.
His arm is about my waist; his face is a breath away from mine. I can't resist the urge to look up into that familiar face, and for a split second pretend.
Reuben releases the shutter. The camera flashes, and I at last have the dream tableau of what could have been if I'd made it to the appointment with Tashinga and his fast car…
Don't wait anymore, Tash. I'm finally here.
Then Tonderai's companion – the boyhood friend of many years – leaves the scene. He leaves without any consciousness from either the easy Tonderai or the rapt Chipo. He has places to be and cannot dally.
It gets dark by the border. Pitch black. Particularly depending on which side you’re on and where. The chaotic, all at once desolate outpost that is the Beitbridge-SA border. On any given day, it’s an unresting mesh of fatigued activity. I say fatigued activity because the very busy-ness of the people there does nothing to detract from their spent bodies, sallow faces, and rheumy eyes. Movements so well-studied they’re mechanical. Yes, on any given night it is that way. Though it was slightly different that night – the night in question – the night I want to detail.
That night another…shall we call it...sentiment?...made up part of the Beit-SA border atmosphere. It was tension, a kind of subtly-lying paranoia. It was the night of Josiah Mapuranka. “A wanted Zanu-PF mercenary.” Border patrol and the travelling/migrating people alike were edgy, placed on high alert. Border patrol tasked with preventing the “criminal fugitive” from crossing into South Africa; the people were fearful of a maniac they knew well – one “who’d been known to slit a man’s throat at the least wrong answer indicative of a lack of patriotism,” it was said.
This is the story I want to tell. Of how I managed to jump the border on the high vigilance night of the Josiah Mapuranka alert – with a young pregnant girl. And about two individuals I came to know because of it.
The young girl and myself were paranoid – each of us oppressed by what pursued us. The other two I came to know also had paranoia of their own, I found. Different than mine or the girl’s, yet, still, in all our cases, it was paranoia detrimental to our stability…to our very sanity.
Away from the long lines and pressing bodies, at a distance from the (at night) dimly lit old and dilapidated Zim side border buildings, there is an urban sprawling, an entire town with an economy based on border business.
Long rows of random parked vehicles turned taxis, their drivers haranguing over each other for customers. Town? Bulawayo? Where are you going?
All sorts of hawkers peddling assorted arrays of wares – a teenage boy swinging a small box of sweets (lollipops and chewing gum), women with buckets of fruits on their heads, men bundling logs and materials under their arms.
That’s where I met the girl. Small in stature, belly sharply protruding, she carried a small dusty bag, lost and unsure in a crowd of relentless bustle. But I only glanced over her. I had other places of my own to get to and couldn’t worry about anyone else. My compact satchel was gripped tightly over my bony shoulder, and the woollen hat I wore, in spite of the cloying heat, was pulled down low over my brow. With youthful stride, I went about sifting out the man I had an appointment with.
I’ve always had a keen eye, and with the kind of life I’d lived, I didn’t have any problem locating the man. Among the “taxis” he stood in the background, nothing as vocal as the haranguing drivers surrounding him, but nonetheless with more customers packed sandwich-style into his little van than any of them.
“Musina – can you take me there?” I asked, briefly flashing him with a stack of notes I pulled out from the inside of my hoodie.
The cheerful smile that had been playing on the man’s face since I arrived didn’t falter. His chubby cheeks round, his sweaty face shining in the moonlight, he nodded. “Ja. Sure, sure! I take you.”
She materialized at that point. The pregnant girl. Like a drifting fog in the dark. Hesitantly, almost fearfully, she requested a place in the van too, causing in me an odd sensation of linking fortunes.
She did not have the full fare to get her across the border though, and I was taken aback by the malaicha’s unexpected benevolence in agreeing to transport her regardless. This man, a malaicha – one of the unscrupulous group that made their living by transporting illegal immigrants across the border into South Africa – given to benevolence?
He must have caught my look of surprise because as we drove away, the pregnant girl between us in the front seat, he cast a toothy smile my way.
“Me. I help the people,” he said. “I’m in the business of freeing people, the business of making dreams come true.” He winked before training his eyes once again to the blackness before us. We were heading away from the border buildings, heading toward the surrounding bush, forging our back-door path into the promised land of South Africa.
The package the malaicha offered came complete with a boat ride across the Limpopo River. On this trip, no one would be braving murky swimming with crocodiles and hippos. The malaicha had that covered. We all of us packed into the little boat, engulfed in night’s black blanket. And again, there she was, pressed hard to my side: the pregnant girl. And by the end of the heart-stopping, unsteady boat ride, I was beginning to feel responsible for her. We hit shore at the SA side of the river; she walked close beside me as we scrambled the rest of the way on foot, Musina the destination we all had in mind.
It’s different on the South African side. Newer buildings; healthier, more vigorous officials; better illumination. The entirety of which we had to cautiously dodge. Sticking to the bushy outskirts, we avoided the long queues of those waiting to get in and out of South Africa. Those arriving usually unburdened with lesser baggage, seeming only to carry their visions of a better life in a better land. Those leaving mostly saddled with groceries and a host of other purchases (furniture, blankets, clothes, the like), as if hoarding out anything they could carry for a return to barrenness. And the South African border officials brisking the whole lot of them along like mildly annoyed, barely tolerant shepherds. Everyone seeming to wish themselves elsewhere – at a different place, in a different time, doing something else. Yet, all stuck.
Turning from the scene of it, the blown-up, framed picture of a regal RG Mugabe hanging above the front door of the Zim border flashed in my mind. That picture so symbolic of the only one hanging high above this outpost – untouched and untouchable.
We’d almost made it past the border – the scurrying border-jumping group we were. But he was waiting for us. The final character of this little story. Perhaps the most important character. A border patrol officer with a lifetime service to doing what is right, to upholding the law. Where the malaicha proclaimed to serve dreams, this man served the law. The malaicha received his wages directly from the people’s hands; the officer received his indirectly through taxes. The area between these two, of who was the greater help to society, who was actually doing the right thing, was very grey, and became even more grey considering what proceeded to take place.
Question good enough to drive anyone mad.
The vigilant, diligent officer apprehended us. The girl fell apart. In a heap of hysterics and weeping, she resisted, crying about how she couldn’t go back, how deportation was as good as death for her.
As it turned out, not only economic deprivation had spurred her on this cross-border journey – besides the poverty and the hardship, there was also an abusive husband. She could have borne anything but going back to him.
I caught a shadow of something across the officer’s face as the girl’s tirade played out. It could have been pity, resolve, and regret mingled into one. I couldn’t hang around to study it. I had to do what I had to do. So, I used the distraction of the pregnant girl’s distress display to fumble an escape. I had been right to feel inter-linked fortunes with that girl after all. Her breakdown was my salvation.
I’ve met up with one or two from our group since that time. They tell me about how the girl fell into the hands of her husband again immediately following the deportation. They say as soon as the van carrying her, and a few others captured, arrived Zim side, he was there waiting for her. They say the officer was also there, watching that husband pull away the pregnant girl. It’s clear that the officer was questioning himself, questioning the values of right and wrong he spent much of his life adhering to. Could there ever be anything right in handing over a young, desperate girl back into the hands of torment?
I knew he’d asked himself that, because those of us that had escaped the first ambush came across him again the next day, as we stoically trekked the remaining distance to Musina. He was at the driver’s seat of the police van, a few of his colleagues riding along with him in the passenger seats. He’s the only one who saw us before we could hide ourselves. For a moment, the van slowed down. He could have alerted his colleagues, he could have arrested us all. But his gaze met mine, and he seemed not to see me at all but someone else, someone else he couldn’t erase from his mind, or from his guilt-ridden dreams. The pregnant girl?
The police van picked up speed. He turned a blind eye. He let us go.
“Josiah! You made it!” One of my comrades cried out happily when I got to Musina. I smiled, but it was somewhat grim.
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