Dr Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
We are known for what new professions we have learnt in formal schooling. And yet, there are those skills we used to learn just by seeing or observing. Or simply by virtue of genetic talent.
My grandmother Mbuya VaMandirowesa used to say that if you do not have a skill, you will never get married.
This did not apply to just us girls, but to boys as well.
Every single person must be known for that which they are good at, Mbuya would say. Then she sat there, on the footsteps of the granary, taking in her snuff and pointing to the people in the village around us and way beyond, who were known for their particular skills.
There was VaZizhanga, the village midwife. She was a short woman with very big breasts.
When someone was in labour, you saw VaZizhanga cupping her full breasts in her hands to stop them from swinging as she ran to deliver a baby across the river or over the mountain.
When my sister Paida was born, it was VaZizhanga who did the delivery.
I was too young to know what happened, but the story is that VaZizhanga had already gone to the nhimbe, or village communal field work when the message came that my mother was in labour.
VaZizhanga immediately placed a small stone on her back, wrapped a cloth around it and carried it like a baby. Somehow that stone had magic powers to stop a baby from popping up its head too soon before the midwife arrived.
Paida was delivered well and the umbilical cord was cut with a razor.
Then it was buried in the fields near the homestead so Paida will always remember where it is. That way, she would not forget where she came from.
Then there was Sekuru VaMhofu, my grandfather Sekuru Dickson’s brother. He was the blacksmith, traditional healer and wise elder. I recall that Sekuru VaMhofu was this tall, quiet-spoken man with white hair who never left his dare, or the man’s place. The dare was on the northern side of the anthill not too far from the village homestead.
Sekuru VaMhofu lived under a tree at the dare and slept there. Many boys received lessons on how to be a man at the dare. Women in the village homestead took sadza and various relish to the dare where the men tasted the dishes and commented on the best cook among all the women. Every young man brought his proposed bride to Sekuru VaMhofu so he could inspect her with his eyes, ask about her totem and her people. Then he would smile gently at her, before giving his confidential comment on whether she would make a good wife or not.
One time, my brother Charles brought a very skinny, light-skinned, pretty woman from Salisbury, before it became Harare.
Charles was so proud of his girl and was ready to pay lobola for her.
He took her to meet Sekuru Mhofu.
Soon after she clapped hands to Sekuru, she was told to leave the dare and join the other women.
On that day, Sekuru was carving a wooden stool with a little axe and a sharp knife.
As the proposed urban bride walked away, Sekuru paused, looked at her again, shook his head and spat very far away from Charles.
Then he said: “Chorosi muzukuru, Harare inonzi ukapfira mate, anomhara pamukadzi. Karukonikoni aka unokadii? Kanorima? Washaya mukadzi? ” meaning something like this: “My dear grandson, they say there are so many women in Harare to the extent that when you spit, you will hit a woman, why would you take such a skinny woman as a wife? Can she work in the fields?” But at that time, my brother Charles wanted a Western- type woman, urban-based, light-skinned, skinny and glamorous.
He married his bride. She never came back to work in the fields. Sadly, for other reasons, the marriage did not last. Sekuru Mhofu blamed it all on the woman, saying she was too urban and lacked any skills or talents to make a good wife.
Down in the Save Valley, was the Goredema family, the fishermen and hunters.
Soon as the rain came, they trapped the cat fish in big nets, smoked them and placed them in a sack.
The father and son walked around the villages, exchanging smoked fish with sugar, salt or flour.
Because their soil was very fertile, they grew large quantities of okra. Long before our small fields of okra were ready, the Goredema family brought us fresh okra and also sun dried tomatoes. Occasionally, they killed a hippo and walked the steep hills to sell the fresh meat. People said the Goredema men had their bodies “treated” or kurapirwa against crocodiles. They could jump into a pool infested with crocodiles in the Save River.
They fearlessly caught fish and none of the crocodiles dared eat them.
Mbuya often pointed to the Goredema young men and told us to consider marrying one of the sons. But my mother would take us aside and say: “Aiwa, those boys have not seen the door of a classroom.” Mbuya then argued that seeing the door of a classroom or spending days sitting on a desk listening to a teacher did not make a good wife. That argument between Mbuya and my mother went on for years. My mother said we should combine village skills with Western education. That way, we would know how to survive in the city, because the village was not going to be there forever.
Today, if you come to our village, you only need to ask what food the Goredema family have to sell and people will tell you that they have dried okra, fresh vegetables, fish or even smoked rabbits.
Their skill has been passed on from generation to generation.
Mbuya also said one of us girls must spend hours with my mother and learn how to make clay pots.
My mother’s skill was to find the right clay by the river, pound it to the right consistency, and then sit there for hours carefully moulding big and small pots.
On some pots she made chevron patterns. Then she left them to dry, periodically smoothening them with a special stick or stone.
Once they were dry, she dug the ground and made a special furnace. We helped her strip the dry barks of a tree, makwati and leaves. She burnt the pots until they were red hot and nicely brown. My mother sold her pots and raised money for our school fees.
Up to this day, people say, thank your mother for her skill to mould. Vaive shasha pakuumba hari. But we did not learn how to mould pots.
At that time, we believed that pottery making was done by poor people.
We did not know that it was an art to be celebrated. That ability or talent to work with clay is long lost in my family.
Mbuya also used to point at people who did nothing, especially, the man across the river called Isaya.
He was the lazy one who sat by his hut and watched people rush to the fields, plough or weed all day.
A lazy person was often referred to as doing nothing like Isaya, “kuti gada saIsaya”.
People said laziness was Isaya’s talent, shavi or bad spirit. Isaya died with nothing to his name.
Not everyone had a celebrated talent or skill. In our family, there was Tete Sara, who was known to love men beyond what was considered normal. Varoora, or those women who had a joking relationship with her said Tete Sara was the first African woman from the village to share the same bed with lonely European traders during the colonial days. Her skill was to keep men happy, be they Europeans, Malawians, Mozambicans and Zambians.
When Tete Sara got older, she came back home bringing a Malawian husband with her.
Before he died, he handed over to her the skills of a traditional healer.
Then Tete Sara became known as the healer with a skill to provide good medicine to men suffering from various bedroom ailments.
Tete Sara restored fertility confidence in men, even if they were beyond 90 years of age. As her great nieces, the same varoora teased us, asking why we did not inherit such a skill, because in this day and age, a traditional approach to such male ailments is much needed. If only we had gained such artistic knowledge and skill from Tete Sara.
“What does your partner do?” We often ask new friends.
The answer is: he or she is a lawyer, a teacher, a nurse, builder, an electrician or a plumber. We are known for what new professions we have learnt in formal schooling. And yet, there are those skills we used to learn just by seeing or observing. Or simply by virtue of genetic talent.
Most of the old artisans from our village have since died.
But their sons and daughters, who missed out on going to school, are still there. You find such celebrated skills also in other villages around Zimbabwe and beyond the borders. These skills which need no formal schooling are to be celebrated.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.