The other day I overheard my 18-year-old nephew, (the one who does not speak Shona), talking to a friend over the phone. They were talking about a missing cellphone. My nephew casually mentioned the friend’s mother by her first name like she was another friend.
The conversations soon deteriorated into an exchange of swear words.
Before he switched off his phone in anger, I heard my nephew say, “I am going to get you, mother f****r.”
I tried to translate his swearing into Shona and the words could not be uttered.
There are some words that refuse to be spoken by a normal tongue, especially bad words referring to a mother’s name.
My nephew seemed to have forgotten or simply did not know that a mother’s name is never mentioned like that. A mother’s name is sacred.
When we were in primary school, the number one rule at St Columbus School was to honour your mother’s name and to never mention it when talking to anyone.
If a student said something bad referring to your mother, that student was given heavy punishment such as digging a big hole until he or she could stand in it up to the waistline.
We could mention our father’s name very easily. But never revealed or talked about mother’ first names.
It was just not done.
The last physical fight I ever had was in defence of my mother’s name. That was many years ago when we were herding cattle down by Save River, back in the village.
I was challenged to a fight by a boy called Panichi.
Normally, I would have just ignored him and swallowed his nasty abuse.
Panichi was one of those tall and skinny village boys who had failed Grade Five and dropped out of school.
He specialised in hunting rabbits and catching mice in the dry season.
When the rains came, Panichi looked after his family’s cattle and led us all to the best grazing pastures faraway from the village, usually somewhere further down the Save River valley. Panichi was good at everything, like milking a cow without tying its legs, weaving a whip, chamboko, in just a few minutes.
He could also fight with people his age and even those a lot older than he was.
I stayed away from Panichi until the day he challenged me to a fight for no reason at all.
But in order for us to fight, a reason had to be found.
Sairosi, the oldest herdboy among us, built two pyramids of sand next to each other.
He said one pyramid of sand was my mother’s breast and the other one belonged to Panichi’s mother’s breast.
The sand pyramids represented our mother’s honour.
Panichi lovingly remoulded his mother’s breast and stood back admiring it.
I did the same to my mother’s “breast”.
Then Panichi stepped forward and kicked my mother’s breast, demolishing it completely.
He danced on the spot until it was all flat.
My mother’s breast and honour was all gone.
Everyone laughed and jeered at me.
Panichi performed some grotesque dances and sang a song whose lyrics involved my mother’s name, pointing at me saying, “Kamukonikoni ka ChiNelia katematema! Little insect, Nelia’s dark skinned daughter!”
Nelia was and still is my mother’s name. And I even hesitate to write it here.
We did not mention that name, ever.
But here was dumb Panichi, a boy who could not read or spell anything in English, dancing where my mother’s breast stood and worse still; he had shown disrespect by uttering my mother’s name in public.
I was ready for the fight, a real fight with fists, zvibhakera chaizvo. But first, I had to destroy Panichi’s mother’s breast to show him what I was made of.
Did Panichi not know that my totem was the Eland, Mhofu yeMukono, Chihera, the one who carries wasps on his hump, mutunhu unemago?
I took one look at his mother’s pyramid breast and gently stepped backwards to gather momentum.
Then I went for Panichi’s mother’s breast like I was kicking a ball straight through the goalposts.
I smashed it, sending all the sand flying in the air. It felt good. But not for long.
Before I could compose myself and get my fists ready for the duel, something smashed me on the eye and I saw the stars. I hit the river sand, landing smoothly on my right shoulder and cheek.
I lay there eating the sand. Akandibika.
I opened one eye and held on to the assaulted one.
Panichi looked like a giant, towering over me.
His fists were huge and his eyes red.
“Iwe, who told you that you can kick my mother’s breast. Iwe mwana wachiNeria!” he shouted.
I lay still, the pain in my eye throbbing. Panichi jeered at me and everyone laughed.
Sairosi helped me to get up, examined my eye, turned to Panichi and said, “When we fight, we do not want to cause harm to each other, hatikuvadzane. Also we do not mention our mother’s names like that because they are sacred. Zita ramai rinoyera.” Sairosi said I should go home and he would bring my cattle with him.
As I walked home through the forests, half blind and holding on to my injured swelling eye with leaves, I felt the pride of having defended the honour of my mother’s name. I promised myself, as every good daughter and son should, to fight against any mention of my mother’s name in public.
Last week, my mother, Mbuya VaShuvai or Mbuya Nzenza as people call her, was in hospital with a diabetic problem. All the visiting relatives stood around her bed.
She was not dying.
No. It was nothing like that.
But people were worried so many relatives came to visit her. We had never seen some of them before.
Each one of them introduced themselves to my mother, recalling the past and some specific events to invoke my mother’s memory.
One elderly relative arrived with his packet of bananas and a tin of yoghurt.
He held my mother’s frail hand and said, “Ndini Zekiya, mwana watete venyu VaNdiraire, son of your aunt. I am the boy you used to carry on your back all the time when you lived with us at Daramombe.”
My mother remembered him and smiled, squeezing his hand. She introduced him to all of us.
We remembered stories she used to tell us about the time she cared for Zekiya and some of her aunt’s children when she was a young girl in the late 1930’s.
Other relatives then started retelling incidents in which my mother had played a role at some stage in their lives.
There was much laughter and shaking of hands.
Nurses had a hard time controlling the noise and the numbers of people standing around my mother’s bed.
Some nephews from her maiden home clapped their hands to her saying, “Makadii Baba vedu? How are you our father? How is the live She Buffalo, Nyati Mhenyu?”
My mother replied that Nyati was lying down for a while and soon, she hoped to get up again and get back to her fields. Wishful thinking on my mother’s part.
She was in the field for too many years.
Now she cannot see a life in the village where one does not get up to go to the field or the garden.
Here she was, my mother, the mother of others, the aunt, uture ancestor, the sister, the elder, the healer, the beer brewer, the pottery maker, the woman who calls herself Chamahwinya when she is angry.
The grandmother and great grandmother of 40 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.
Every day, relatives and friends came in to visit my mother and prayed for her at the end of each visiting hour.
Catholics, Anglicans, Johane Masowe, Paul Mwazha, Marange, African Apostolic Faith, Makandiwa, Methodists, Dutch Reformed Church, Christ Embassy, Nigerian Pastor Chris’ church, Celebration Centre and many others came.
There was no shortage of praying volunteers.
From the missionaries, we inherited the legacy of praying.
Then on Wednesday, the hospital Irish priest, Father Francis came to visit my mother.
He smiled at all of us as he approached my mother’s bed.
Father gently asked who among us spoke English.
I lifted up my hand and said, yes, I could speak Father.
He said he was grateful because when he had visited my mother twice before, there had been no one to translate English into Shona for him.
Father asked me to tell my mother that he was going to do the sacrament and give her communion.
My mother said it was well. The priest looked at my mother’s hospital notes just to be sure he had the right Catholic patient.
After many years serving God as an Anglican, my mother became a Catholic during the war when the liberation fighters educated her on the close relationship between Anglicans, the civilisation mission and British colonialists. Father Francis said to my mother, “Nelia, I have come to pray for you and give you communion.”
I was meant to translate that and I did, without referring to my mother’s name.
We all stood there and did not tell Father Francis that our culture does not allow us to mention a mother’s first name like that. For how do you tell an elderly white priest to respect Shona culture?
After Father Francis had finished his work, my two sisters-in-law, who are strong Catholics, explained that it was not necessary to remind the priest about respecting our culture because it was a Catholic tradition to call a person by the name they will be called with when they die and arrive in Heaven.
I imagined my mother waiting at the gates of heaven waiting for her name to be called.
It was not going to be Rowai, the name her mother gave her at birth. In Heaven, they will call her Nelia, the name Anglicans gave her when she was first baptised at Daramombe Christ The King Church in 1944. I wondered if the Angel Gabriel or the Apostle Peter, the appointed ones who keep watch at the gates of heaven, would remember that Nelia was no longer an Anglican but a Catholic. Presumably, both Catholics and Anglicans go to the same heaven.
When we were walking out of the hospital after visiting hour, my nephew, (the one who does not speak Shona), tapped me on the shoulder and said, “So Mbuya’s name is Nelia?” I said yes but it should not be mentioned lightly like that. He looked puzzled for a moment. Then he smiled and said, “Nelia. Nelia. It’s cool.” And walked away.
As my mother nears the golden sunset of her long life, the battle to protect the sacredness of her name, so it seems, is already lost to the church and the young ones.
l 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.