Sean Christie gets on his bike and returns to what used to be his grandfather's farm outside Harare
In 2000 sometime a prominent Zimbabwean politician travelled up and down the Old Bulawayo Road between the agricultural towns of Norton and Kadoma, looking for a farm to buy.
A wave of violent land invasions by youths claiming to be veterans of the Seventies bush war meant it was a good time for prominent ruling party politicians to be shopping for cheap white-owned farms.
There was no riper target than my grandfather, who was by then so badly afflicted with emphysema that the end of his tenure had become a near inevitability anyway, presaged by spiderwebs hanging thick with dust, like silken stalactites, all through the yard.
That it was a sale under duress, and hardly less despicable than outright theft, was reflected in the price offered and accepted -- little more than the monetary equivalence of a second-hand Land Rover in exchange for 3 000ha of sandveld, a lifetime's worth of buildings and a home. And yet somehow the exchange of title deeds made a difference to me and the other potential inheritors in our family. Thereafter, whenever I intersected with the Zimbabwean dispossessed debating the prospects for return ("when things improve up there"), I turned away, disinterested. As far as I was concerned the family chapter on the farm in Zimbabwe was closed. Everything that happened since seemed to validate this view.
Imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself astride a 21-speed mountain bike in a suburban garden on the outskirts of Harare, receiving last-minute directions to Norton.
"Stay on the Enterprise road all the way into the city," said my host, an old university friend who somehow continued to eke a living out of the world's loopiest economy by trading soft oils.
"Slice straight through the city, which will be busy today because [Robert] Mugabe has convened Parliament. The main drag becomes the old Bulawayo road, which will get you to Norton and your grandaddy's farm."
I knew all of this from countless holiday commutes between the farm and the city, but just a day back in Zimbabwe had been enough to convince me it was a new country from the one I had known. Plus you want to be extra sure of things on a bike, in a country without food or drink, riding towards the unknown.
"How far is it?"
"About sixty Ks."
"And it's hot."
"Very hot," echoed Samson, James's housekeeper. "Do you have a puncture repair kit?"
I lied. "Yes."
"Do you have a place to stay?""Yes, the Norton Country Club," I lied again. Its number was no longer listed in the slim national directory.
James opened the gate with a beeper. "Well, see you on the other side shamwari. Remember, the worst that can happen to you is a thorough political re-education. Let me give you a tip. If a crowd of Zanu people start shouting "Pin", (as in: what's your secret pin code?), you must punch the air and shout "Jongwe!", which means "cockerel", the Zanu-PF mascot.
Remember: Pin -- Jongwe, Pin--Jongwe, Pin--Jongwe …'
I walked the bike down the hill punching the air with my free hand.
"And for Pete's sake don't go waving at anyone. The open hand wave is considered a sign that you're MDC!"
The first person to shout at me had my welfare at heart: "You must pootee some presha in your tyahs!" I ground to a dispirited halt, heard a lion roar somewhere behind the long wall of the Harare Show Ground, and read "Agricultural Show" from the banner above the turnstiles. For years my uncle, aunt and others from the Norton farming district had operated a dubious food stand there, once roundly poisoning all who bought their hamburgers.
The shows' heydays were the sanctions-era Seventies and the post-independence Eighties. By the Nineties it had become a bore and now, the agricultural sector having been all but demolished by the infamous seizing of white-owned farms, it is little more than a hollow propaganda exercise and a funfair -- lion roars souring the milk of a few token dairy cows.
Sites of delicate personal significance studded the old Bulawayo road and I paused by a sign for Warren Hills Cemetery, where my grandmother's ashes were interred in 1987. It represented a short diversion, but in his second book about the post-independence Zimbabwe, When A Crocodile Eats The Sun, Peter Godwin describes his footsteps.
"… the brass plaques, which were bolted onto each mini-tomb … are missing. Every single one. The wall is just a long line of blank niches." Godwin noted that tombstones had been stolen for use in building and that maize was being cultivated in their place. Plus the site was being used as a lavatory for the next door township.
For a while I pedalled on, dutifully bearing witness to images of want, stowing images of men tilling beneath blank-faced billboards and of women with buckets by streams so rank I gagged, and furthermore of children with lemons (the "water water everywhere …" of African fruits), for potential use in a story I had not yet decided to write. Soon enough, however, thirst and leg pain geared my curiosity down to near apathy and between the old snake park and the turn for Lake Chivero, I was interested only in a mysterious preponderance of candelabra trees, which I later realised were there only because their latex-filled arms don't burn in township stoves.
The rest of the country's trees are fast going up in smoke.
When the next real strobe of cognition broke through I was on the railway bridge outside the town of Norton, the rim of my back wheel flush against the tarmac. The sun was dropping fast and I would not have made it to the Norton Country Club in daylight if a farmer from Kadoma, Kevin, hadn't stopped the moment I put my thumb out.
"You sure somebody here knows you're coming?" he asked? "Because it isn't really a country club anymore, it's the property of CCC, the pig conglomerate" I lied with a nod of my head.
At first glance, aside from the guard house, two proud flagpoles and a trench full of biocide, it appeared little else had changed from the countless Saturdays I had spent there in my tennis or cricket whites. Spray heads chattered away on mown fairways, yellow pins were planted in manicured greens and on the terrace beneath the clubhouse gable the old wrought-iron tables and chairs were arranged like daisy-heads.
"Seems out of place now, doesn't it?" said Kevin. "It's an amazing story actually. Some of the last remaining farmers in the district clubbed together and went into business with the country's major producer of pork products. They bought the country club when all the white members left and continue to look after the golf course because it keeps them in the good books of the local black businessmen."
With that Kevin went tearing back to the main road, just ahead of a frantic column of dust. I turned to face one of the major sites of my childhood, now silent and shuttered.
"Knock knock," I shouted before proceeding into the East wing of the clubhouse, past the fleur-de-lys-covered women's changeroom to the crèche, which was now taken up by a large queen-size covered with a pink corduroy bedspread. A woman with sun-blasted skin was changing in the en-suite bathroom, caught with her shirt over her head and fortunately facing away.
When she joined me on the terrace lawn a minute later she was wearing a canary yellow satin top with epaulettes, carried off by black tracksuit bottoms. She hadn't bothered with shoes and from one glance at the geological marvels that were the ends of her toes I knew she had been a long-time resident of the Norton district, which has a groundwater lime content so high it calcifies kettle elements, makes lathering-up in the shower impossible and turns toenails into vegetable ivory.
"I'm afraid there's not much to do here so I sleep a lot of the time," she said, puffing on a Pacific Mild. "By the way, I'm Dianne Bolt."
I explained my predicament.
"Camp on the bowling green if you like, you're welcome -- I won't even charge you."
Her story came out of a Graham Greene novel I hadn't read. After the recent death of her husband, Dianne had defied family resistance and returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa. CCC had employed her "to keep an eye" on the country club, a mantle which she had interpreted as a veiled instruction to look into company malfeasance. Within a week, and seemingly without regret, she had rumbled the estate manager's mielie-meal scam.
"You should have heard us screaming at each other that night. At one point I saw this little axe on the table and I thought to myself, Dianne, you had better get hold of that before he does. Well, you should have seen Nedson run …"
The electricity had been off for days, but that night as I climbed into my sleeping bag on the spongy green the lights winked on in the bar and I saw Dianne smoking for a minute or two -- a forlorn symbol of this strange new ecosystem that depended for everything on the profitability of a single, giant piggery.
In the morning it was the disgraced manager himself who conjured a hearty breakfast of fatty staff-ration pork rashers ("we eat rashers for breakfast, pork loin for lunch, pork steak for dinner. We are all sick of pork"). Afterwards he insisted I follow him through to the bar.
"Look up at those feet on the ceiling. Do you remember the history that is here?" I followed his gaze to a montage of painted hands and feet and recalled that outgoing members, if they were well-liked, got dipped in paint and turned into human stamps on especially festive nights.
The district health inspector had recently ordered Dianne to "clean the dirt off the ceiling", but she had other ideas, which Nedson returned to life through gleaming caricature.
"No, I'm sorry," he said, hooting with Victorian indignation, "it bloody well isn't dirt, it's history, and we're not going to do anything about it until you can tell the difference."
Dianne returned from the CCC workshop with a fixed bicycle tyre and an ominous message from management.
"They say it's a bad time to be doing what you're doing. This whole peace deal business has made the war veterans very nervous. They might think you've arrived to take your farm back."
Urging caution has become a reflex in Zimbabwe, especially in the countryside, where inter-farm communication has collapsed, breaking the district up into an archipelago of distrustful villages and compounds. Knowing this did not, however, mean that I was able to forget Dianne's warning as I crossed, with very little Shona and fulfilling every detail of a most suspicious profile, on to the old family farm sometime before noon.
I instantly suspected two youths standing by the turn -- one ofwhom stared at me with unnerving intensity -- of belonging to Mugabe's youth militia, pejoratively known as Green Bombers.
"Boss Sean, you are back?"
I wobbled to a stop.
"It is me, Patrick, Witness's son."
"Witness! How is Witness?
"He is fine boss."
"And Cosmos? Is that madala [old man] still alive?"
"He is alive. Come with me."
Witness and Cosmos had worked for my grandfather for 34 and 36 years respectively, cooking, washing, polishing floors, stoking boiler fires and churning milk. Independence came and went and they continued to answer to a little brass bell every morning at breakfast, which I rang with great enthusiasm on the holidays during which I intersected with this odd, anachronistic world of master and servant.
Now shouts of "you must come back to us, we are struggling here", came from a swelling entourage of boys in their late teens and early twenties. Cosmos, puffing on a newspaper joint like a small engine at the head of his own human train, wove towards us through the mud huts and red brick houses. His eyes were clouded with blue cataracts and his teeth were missing, but that he was alive at all was a marvel in a country where life expectancy hovers around 35.
After a smoky hug we worked through a roll call of mutual acquaintances, ending with the news of my grandfather's death.
"Oh sorry, sorry," he said, taking my hand and beginning to cry. I wept a little too and the scene embarrassed the younger boys, causing them to giggle or look solemn according to their characters. They suggested we leave immediately to find Witness at his new homestead on the neighbouring farm.
To get to the path we moved with anxious haste around the fenced farmyard, which was under the control of war veterans brought in to protect the new owner's family. A tractor engine fired up and drew near, but to everyone's relief it was driven by Cosmos's son, one of a handful of men from the compound still employed by the farm, if being paid in water and mielie-meal can be said to qualify the term.
"Your daddy's old house is zero," he lamented. "The boreholes have all broken so there is no water for anyone. I have to fetch it every day from the next door farm."
"No electricity, no food," said Patrick and his brothers. "All we grow here is grass."
Isaac was nervous of appearances and soon took off on his water round. The youngsters had nothing to loseand continued to heap scorn on the new owner as we drew past the vacant, breeze block pig sties, which once debouched fantastic colours of after-birth into a rancid marsh.
"Sometimes we see him. But I don't think he likes coming here anymore because he has failed. His people just live in the big house and we live here in the compound. They are zero and we are zero."
Witness's homestead consisted of two mud huts conveniently situated across the path from a small, hyacinth-clad dam. He dropped a hoe he had been digging with and came towards us shouting, "yo yo yo yo, yeh yeh yeh …"
He looked quite starved, but would say only that it was because he was "working hard these days".
"Just look at all these children. This one and this one are not even mine."
The two Aids orphans stood by politely as Witness related the death of his middle son, Tendeka.
"It was MaNyoka … what you call it -- a runny stomach; but he died because there is no medicine anywhere."
I delivered his former employers' obituaries and Cosmos added that his own wife and one of their sons had recently died. Before the boys started on their own woes we moved quickly to agreeing that it was a very happy day indeed and I asked nicely if I could stay the night.
"But we have no food."
"I will get some mielie-meal and pork from the pig farm," I said with presumptuous gusto. "I will bring a lot of pork, then we can all have dinner together -- you, me, Cosmos, Isaac and the children."
I flew back to the gates of CCC, dipped my wheels and shoes in biocide and told my story to a successive string of managers leading all the way to the head office, where a woman called Rhoda smiled and said: "It's good to do these things sometimes -- good for the soul."
When I left, the zipper of my backpack grinned with two kilograms of mielie-meal and 5kg of bloody pork -- loin, chops, rashers and knuckles. Rhoda had winked as she handed over a receipt for Z$400, a mere R15. "In the city this lot would cost you 10 times more."
Cosmos cooked a memorable curry that night in his rough daub and wattle kitchen, using powder salvaged from the old farmhouse. The table mats depicting landscape scenes in New Zealand were familiar too, as were the glasses, the crockery, and, I swear, a teaspoon with a square end. The youngsters had scratched up a pack of Pacifics in my honour and we smoked around a paraffin candle and drank Coke, and repeatedly said it was a happy day.
Awkwardness intruded only once, when I took a surprise photograph of Cosmos serving dinner. The flash popped and blew light into the night and led to such a deal of muttered Shona I put the camera away for good.
"You must rather take a picture of the old house," Witness urged. "Your family will want to see pictures of that."
Isaac, who worked cheek by jowl with the war veterans, gave a cautionary whistle.
"It is not a good idea."
"And the yard, do you think I could walk around the yard tomorrow?"
"That is a problem also."
Later, lying on a grass mat in Cosmos's pantry, I felt a brief gust of murderous indignation, which soon petered out to nothing when I realised that my fantasies of revenge had almost certainly passed through the dreams of dismissed labourers in my grandfather's time, and in his father's time. I was, and had always been, a mere guest of the feudal continuum.
Nevertheless early morning found me weaving through huts, coops and out-houses, until I was free of the village and heading for the farmhouse. The sun wasn't quite up, but I could see perfectly well, which meant I could be seen as I worked my way through the naked acacias in the old dairy cow camp that embraced the farmhouse garden.
I intended taking cover in the elephant grass that grew by the pool or by the lemon trees at the back near the old boiler, but all chance of concealment had literally gone up in the smoke of a fire that had burned straight through the camp and into the garden, all the way to the walls of the house. I was just readying my camera for pictures when an alarm went up -- two quick whistle blasts, which had me sprinting back to the compound along old cow tracks. I froze deep amongs the acacias, thinking, "Idiot!" The alarm sounded again and it was answered by a double whistle directly behind me -- a heuglin's robin, one of a pair just warming up for the day. I crept sheepishly back to the compound.
As I re-assembled my smoky effects a toddler in a grimy blue dressing gown tried seducing me with her giggles. She had brown eyes and her hair had been pulled and twisted in a dozen directions, like the scapes of an agapanthus.
"Do you know her name?" asked Cosmos, puffing on the first zol of the day. "They call her Lolla, after your sister."
Lolla's father was busy with my second puncture, looking for bubbles as he rapidly put the semi-inflated inner tube through a bowl of water. I recorded these details minutely because I thought that's how I'm going to end the story -- with the image of a father and daughter at the beginning of a new Zimbabwean day, read "peace deal".
But as I write this now, weeks later, it is clear that the "historic peace deal" signed by Mugabe and the two leaders of the opposition MDC factions was just another of the autocrat's diversionary stunts, designed to mislead world attention and secure a few more months of suicidal governance. That he has largely succeeded owes much to the gutless leaders of the Southern African Development Community, who implicitly gave the octogenarian their stamp of approval when they urged him, in November, to go ahead and form a government despite the fact that critical power-sharing issues have not been resolved.
Witness's words speak over the endless political heckling.
"The rains have come and there is no seed. How will we survive until Christmas? Nobody knows."
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Sean Christie gets on his bike and returns to what used to be his grandfather's farm outside Harare