Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday
I HAVE a few grey hairs on the side of my head and a couple at the front. And maybe more on my head and elsewhere. Maybe. So I mention this to my cousin Piri, just in passing and also in reference to age. She laughs and says, “Sis, kunonzi kuchembera,” meaning I am getting old. The thought of getting old makes me shudder for a moment and also feel a sense of apprehension, perhaps, sadness almost.
But Piri does not stop laughing. She leans on my shoulder and pulls my hair without much gentleness. “One grey hair, two, three, ahaaah, many grey hairs,” she laughs counting the grey and white hairs on my head. “And have you noticed that you also have a line growing somewhere on the right side of your face? It’s a wrinkle I think,” Piri says. She pulls my chin and tilts it up, like a doctor examining a child.
Sometimes Piri forgets about private space. She is just like that. She moves to the back of my head and says, “You have more grey hairs behind your head. In fact, they are not grey, they are white. Mbuya VaMandirowesa started greying at the front. Tete Winnie went grey overnight. I think you will be all white by mid next year,” she says, pulling my dread locks and examining each one of them.
“Dye is not expensive you know, Sis. To keep up with the times, use a little, especially at the front.”
We are sitting under the mango tree in the village. It’s so hot and there is no sign whatsoever of rain coming. Yet we are almost in the middle of November. Philemon is using his big phone to google news and other stuff, while my niece Shamiso is looking at fashion trends on the Internet, using my iPad.
There was a time when we had no phone at all here. Then the phone we called a brick came and we climbed the anthill to get a network. During the past two years, we are getting network here including the expensive roaming network from overseas. We can get global news while sitting under the mango tree, like we are doing now. The world has become a small place.
“How old are you Tete?” asks Shamiso, looking at me straight in the face, smiling as if this was a normal question. “You do not ask a woman her age or anyone about age,” I tell her. My irritation with her surprises me.
“And why not? Kana zviine basa zvine basa rei?” asks Piri laughing, basically saying it really did not matter, this whole business about age. It may be important for some people but it may not be important at all. “Who cares about age and grey hairs?” she says, reaching for her beer from the cooler box.
“Because it’s just nice to be young,” Shamiso says. She can very well say that. I recall the time when I was 21 too. That was many years ago.
“Aging is bad I tell you,” says Shamiso, now going through the photos on my iPad. “Look at this one of you,” she says, pointing at a photo of me with an Afro, taken at Stella Nova studios when I first came to Harare just before independence. I was young and youthful, with a soft, beautiful flawless skin. The scar from a childhood barbed wire accident showing like a thin line on the left side of my nose. I am smiling into the camera. My eyes are big and clear. My teeth are even and almost perfect, not stained by years of coffee and red wine like they are now.
Since I was the middle girl, I am sitting on a chair with my two sisters, Charity and Paida. They are standing next to me and resting their hands on my shoulders. We are wearing similar dresses with big, bold black and white flowers, a Christmas present from our older sisters. Charity has her hair plaited in beautiful criss-cross and then made into some kind of a crown. She looks graceful.
People always said Charity was the beauty among the three of us. Paida was the light skinned one and beautiful too. She looked more like my mother. In the photo, Paida’s Afro is even bigger than mine and she is very skinny.
This photo was taken soon after independence, when we went to Machipisa from Glen Norah to get it taken. It was later framed and placed on the wall, back in the village. It sat there for years, attracting small brown marks from cockroaches and nibbles at the frame corners from the rats. One day, it left the wall and found its way to Australia or the USA. Maybe Paida or one of the younger sisters felt that it was time for the photo to leave the village. The photo was made digital. Recently, someone put it on the family WhatsApp forum and everyone had a good laugh, saying how young and innocent we all looked then.
Piri takes a closer look at the photo of us and points at Charity. Speaking slowly and almost whispering, she says, “If only we could turn back time. We would make her live again and she can return here to brew beer and help manage this homestead the way she used to do. Ah, that one, she inherited the strength of Mbuya VaMandirowesa.” We felt the sadness in her voice. Charity died three years ago. She was the one to go first, before her time.
“Nguva haisi yedu,” I tell them, meaning time does not belong to us. We grow, with age and time moves on. That is the way we are created. “Some of us depart this life long before we have grey hairs on our heads,” says Piri. She turns to me again and starts counting my grey hairs.
I shrug and move a little from her. “What about you? Let me check your head,” I say. But she says I was not to touch her hair. And I said why not. “Because you will see that I have been dyeing my hair!” she says, laughing. She changes the subject and tells me to look at the photos on the internet that Shamiso was now displaying for us to see.
“I want to look like this,” Shamiso says, pointing at a picture of Beyoncé. Then she searches for more images and comes up with another one of Kim Kardashian. “Or this one,” she says, admiringly staring at the model or actress standing next to her husband and baby called Blue.
“Or this one,” she says, placing the Ipad on Piri’s lap showing her a photo of Jennifer Lopez. Piri pushes the iPad away and says, “Iwe, unopenga here? Why do you want to look like these women?”
“Yes, tete, ask her,” says Philemon, dragging his stool and coming closer to us. “Ask Shamiso why she wants to look like American women. Look at her fake hair and her nails. I want her to be normal, to be the way she was when I first met her in Glen Norah more than two years ago. Her hair was plaited with thread even.”
Shamiso laughs dismissively, “One must move with the times. Hapana chekumiririra,” she says, meaning there was nothing to wait for.
“How long do you want to stay young?” Philemon asks. “You are already Prince’s mother. Age is not about years. It’s about what you have achieved in life.”
Maybe Piri is discovering my grey hairs for the first time. But I know about them and lately, that had started to bother me. But why should that be a worry, I cannot figure that out. Is getting old not part of who we are? Shall we remain youthful and ageless forever? Life is not like that.
When we were growing up here, we used to celebrate age.
“Ndiyani mukuru?” was the question asked when a group of us children were seen together, meaning, who is the oldest among you? Then we would look at each other and the oldest always stepped up to take responsibility. Mwana we dangwe, the first born, had many responsibilities that came with being the oldest.
In those days, we all wanted to be older and go to school. We then wanted to be in a higher grade. When sharing sadza and meat, it was the oldest child who picked the biggest piece of meat from the plate first. Being older was nice because it gave you more privileges and respect.
But that time is gone now. The world of the internet, fashion, advertising and social media keeps on reminding us to be young, beautiful and energetic. And yet, getting older gives us memories of the past gone by. Why not look at the present and celebrate life in all its fullness?
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.