When I was at St Columbus School in the village, I wrote love letters for Chingasiyeni and delivered them in person to Zivanai, the boy from behind the mountains. Chingasiyeni could not write then and still cannot write now, because she could
not go to adult school after independence as there was work to be done in the village and children to be born and cared for.
During that courtship period, even Zivanai did not know that I wrote the letters on Chingasiyeni’s behalf. I always signed: “Yours truly Chinga, Ndini wako Chinga.” This was before she had actually said she loved him.
But I knew she loved him. She was just taking her time to say so. A good girl was never ever to say I love you to a boy without putting him through some serious hardships chasing her. Before the boy was accepted, he shed tears, blood and sweat. His shoes were torn from walking long distances and if he had no shoes as was the case with Zivanai, he endured cracked feet until he won the heart of his beloved, chido chemwoyo wake.
The reason why Chingasiyeni could not read and write by the time she became a woman ready for marriage had nothing to do with her lack of intelligence. It was nothing at all like that. I started Grade One and Grade Two together with Chingasiyeni.
We sat on goatskin mats next to each other in class. She had a distinctive lisp (chirimi), and sometimes people laughed at her. Our class teacher was Miss Rwodzi and she spoke softly in English most of the time.
Every morning, we stood up as soon as Miss Rwodzi walked in and chorused: “Good morning Miss Rwodzi! How are you?” She replied, “Good morning class. I am very well thank you. You can sit down.” Then we switched on to learning from the Everyday English book she read to us. People passing by our class often heard
Miss Rwodzi’s class shouting: “The cat sat on the mat! Ben and Betty are going to school! Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall! Father is walking! Mother is walking!”
Miss Rwodzi walked around showing us pictures of a father in a suit and tie and a mother wearing a nice dress, shoes and a hat. The pictures looked nothing like the way our parents dressed. We examined the photographs and longed to read and write English well so we could grow up and dress like those city parents in Everyday English books.
Miss Rwodzi said there was no point in coming to school unless we memorised how to greet and how to ask for a toilet in English. She also made it very clear that it was the toilet or the lavatory that we went to when the need arose and not the bush, (kusango).
One day Chingasiyeni was desperate to go to the toilet but she could not remember how to excuse herself in English. Asking to do so in Shona was totally out of question. She whispered asking me to repeat the toilet request words for her. Miss Rwodzi saw us and ordered us to stop whispering.
A little while later Chingasiyeni whispered again. She said if I did not do the toilet request on her behalf, she was surely going to wet herself, kutozvinyorovesa chaiko. So with the confidence of one who spoke more English words than most of my peers because I had learnt some words from my older brother Sydney who was already at the prestigious Kutama Catholic College, I lifted up my hand high and asked for permission to speak.
Madam Rwodzi said I could speak. So I stood up and with my voice in full volume, I shouted, “Ekesukuzi mi Misi Rwodzi, Chingasiyeni wants to go lavatory!” The whole class burst out laughing. Miss Rwodzi was not impressed. She grabbed a ruler and slapped me on the head. “Why do you speak for her? What happened to
Chingasiyeni’s mouth? Has she misplaced her tongue? Aisepi rurimi?”
Humiliated, I held my sore head and sat down. Madam Rwodzi silenced us all, ignored Chingasiyeni and continued her lesson in Everyday English.
Chingasiyeni did her best to hold back. If only she could manage to control herself until break time. But she could not. Within a short time, we saw a stream of water flowing over the polished mud floor.
Those of us in the way of the stream jumped, pulling our goatskin mats with us. Others pointed and jeered at Chingasiyeni. Miss Rwodzi sent her home. Due to fear and embarrassment, Chingasiyeni never came back to school and she never learnt to read or write love letters.
Fortunately, Zivanai was not in our Grade Two class the year Chingasiyeni left school. He was a few years older and already in Grade Five, reading and writing well in English. After Grade Five, there was no high school nearby so Zivanai joined the home defenders sports team.
These were teenagers who left school and had nothing much to do at home during the dry season. They had their own soccer and netball teams, competing with other school leavers from nearby. A few years later, Chingasiyeni was in the home defenders netball team.
After games, we saw them socialising publicly in the school grounds for a while before the girls hurried straight home before sunset. It was very dangerous to for a girl’s reputation to be seen talking to a boy especially after sunset. A good woman waited to be approached by the boy through a letter.
When Chingasiyeni received her first love letter from Zivanai, she secretly came straight to me with it. We sat on the flat rocks, kuruware, away from prying eyes. The envelope was nicely addressed like this: “Send me flying to Miss Chingasiyeni Chidhakwa, St Columbus School, and Box 48 Enkeldoorn.”
Inside was a folded letter with intricate patterns in various shapes of triangles and hexagons until it became a square. Chingasiyeni unfolded it slowly and carefully in case it tore apart and some precious words lost. She gave me the letter then sat next to me with her legs stretched, her hand on her cheek and listened.
I read: “The green land of love, P.O The Big Rocks, via Kiss me quick. Mudiwa Chingasiyeni, my flower, my honey, huchi, dapitapi rangu. Your cheeks are the colour of a ripe cucumber and they are as soft as a bun soaked in tea.
“That gap between your teeth shows God knew what he was doing when he created you. You are indeed God’s masterpiece. Your eyes are as bright as the moon in the dry season. You are my star so bright it shines during daylight. Kangu kanyeredzi kanovaima nemasikati. Whenever I see you, I shiver with love.
“Tell me, flower of my heart, ruva remwoyo wangu, and tell me that you love me. I want you to be the mother of my children, to be my mother’s daughter in law. I dream of sailing away with you on the high seas. Tiri kumasaisai egungwa. Give me peace. Tell me that I have won the heart that so many men have tried to capture and failed.
“Yours who loves you forever and ever, Zivanai Mudoti.”
When I was reading the letter, Chingasiyeni smiled and smiled. Other times she laughed out loud and asked me to read it again. Her favourite lines were the ones to do with a bun soaked in tea and sailing on high seas. I touched her cheeks and said they did not feel like a bun soaked in tea at all. They were just cheeks like any other cheeks.
“Have you ever seen the sea?” Chingasiyeni asked, looking romantically beyond the grass huts and the mountains into the horizon. I said, no, I had never seen the sea but I suspected it looked more like a flooded river full of crocodiles and hippos. She pinched me gently and laughed. Her laughter had the warmth of love and joy.
I tore a page from my exercise book and she dictated the words for the reply. I wrote, “Kuna Zivanai. I am glad to receive your letter. I have heard your words and will sleep thinking about them. Then one day I shall give you a reply. I do not know if the reply will be one that will please you. Ndini Chingasiyeni.”
It was not a rejection letter but the first one in a pretend I do not love you letters. After the fourth letter, Chingasiyeni was convinced that Zivanai was serious in his courtship of her. She asked me to write the letter declaring her love and willingness to marry him.
I wrote, “To my darling Zivanai. I write this letter to say I have heard your cries seeking my love. Today I accept you with all my heart. Ndinokuda nemwoyo wangu wese until Amen. When I look into your eyes my heart melts and all I want to do is to kiss you. Each time I smell a rose, I think of you. When I see you I shall kiss you a thousand times until we are breathless. I love you to the moon and back. Your future wife Chinga.”
I took the liberty to add the last romantic sentences from a Mills and Boon novel. Then I drew flowers and kisses on the letter even though Chingasiyeni said she was never going to kiss Zivanai because, as far as she knew, kissing was for white people only.
Last Friday, more than 30 years later since I wrote the love letters, I saw Chingasiyeni sitting among the villagers attending a workshop on conservation farming facilitated by Andrew Macpheson, an Australian agricultural expert.
Looking at the slides on the screen, Chingasiyeni’s face was blank. I translated the English words and she winked at me, smiling. Afterwards all the women said they wanted to learn how to use computers, so they can understand how the white man, murungu, was making pictures and words move on the wall like a bioscope.
But Chingasiyeni said she was not interested in computers. All she wanted was to go to adult school. One day she wanted to read and write so she can also provide service to so many other village women who were denied the opportunity to express their love on paper.
- Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and is a consultant and director of The Simukai Development Project.