WHEN we lived in the village and slept in the grass-thatched houses, we laughed a lot. We were a lot happier then. In those days, we did not go looking for money every day because there was no money. Only when the Rhodesian government sent native policemen from the District Commissioner’s office to collect taxes did some men leave the village to go and look for money.
They were forced to find temporary jobs on farms, roads and mines. After a few weeks or some months, they came back to the village with some money to pay for cattle, dog, land and bicycle taxes.
Then they settled back to working in the fields, building houses, fencing gardens, hunting and doing all the men’s work. When that was all done, they enjoyed eating, drinking, telling stories and laughing a lot. It was a happy village.
In between brewing beer, making pottery, working in the fields and doing what mothers did, my mother also laughed a lot, especially in the company of other women. The sounds of loud women’s laughter, chikwee, came from the village well, the river, the fields and from among the hills where women looked for firewood or gathered mushrooms.
They talked, they sang, they danced and they laughed. Mbuya VaMandirowesa laughed mostly when she was in the company of VaMakumbi. Sometimes the two of them only needed to wink at each other in secret language at a beer party and then start laughing until their ribs ached.
In the dry season, around August and September, the men met at their meeting place, padare, where they drank beer, smoked, carved wooden stools, made baskets and mats. They also taught the young boys basic skills on how to be intimate with women.
In the absence of boys, the elders held conversations about serious matters to do with the ancestors and forthcoming ceremonies, mabira.
Since the ancestral spirits were sometimes unpredictable, the elders asked if anyone among the men had done something wrong to bring down the anger of the ancestors. When something really bad happened, like a murder or incest, the elders knew that such acts brought down the wrath of the ancestors and stopped the rain from falling.
Although such bad evils like murder, incest or poisoning happened, they were rare and the elders only talked about them in whispers and behind closed doors for years. They knew that one day, the wrongdoer would be punished. If he was not given the punishment during his lifetime, someone in the immediate family was bound to pay for his sins.
At each bira to honour the ancestors, elders spoke in metaphors, zvibhende nemadimikira, telling the ancestors that they were aware of the bad things that had happened in the community and in due time, the wrongdoer was going to make amends for the evil he had done. They scolded the ancestors, telling them not to deny us rains or stop the joy and laughter in all the villages because someone had committed a grave crime against his fellow men and women.
When November, Mbudzi or the month of the goat, came and there was no sign of rain, we sensed the lack of laughter in the village. We felt the communal pain of waiting for the rains.
Mbuya VaMandirowesa and all the old women, chembere, who were past the age of sleeping with men, brewed beer at Chishanga, the big muchakata tree in the fertile valley of the Save River. For a whole week they stayed there, brewing beer. Even though they were sad because the rains were late, we still heard them laughing while fetching water, mixing the beer porridge, diluting the highly intoxicating beer or mhanga with red sorghum-fermented flour.
After seven days, the elders, sprit mediums, masvikiro and mhondoro, all gathered around the muchakata tree to ask the ancestors for rain. As children we stood back and watched them from a distance. They played the drums, drank some beer and poured some into the ground while speaking to the ancestors, asking for rain. Then they sang and danced, drinking more beer and celebrating the power of ancestors and Mwari, God. We sat there wondering if the ancestors had listened. On the same day or a day or two after mukwerera, we saw the rain clouds gather, usually over the Hwedza or Nyangarire mountains.
The rain came slowly over the high granite rocks and into the compound. We ran outside, laughing and singing in the rain:
(Let it rain! Let it rain!
We shall eat pumpkins when it rains.)
The sky opened with a massive torrent of rain, hitting the dusty ground. It drenched all the grass huts. Outside, the fearsome twist of lightning flashed over the granite rocks, followed by the angry sounds of thunder. We rushed back inside where Mbuya VaMandirowesa and all the women celebrated the coming of the rains talking, laughing and preparing seeds for the new season. The drought was broken and we were happy. Before sunrise the following day, everyone began the ploughing season.
Occasionally, there was sadness when someone was very ill, or a woman was in labour for too long. Then there was no laughter and it was not proper to hear chikwee throughout whole compound. One person’s pain was everyone’s pain. Once that pain was over, everything went back to normal. Telling stories, sharing jokes and laughing was a way of staying connected to one another.
Since our move to the city, there is very little left of that communal way of living and sharing laughter. We only see our relatives occasionally when there is a funeral. We do not have time to share stories, kutaura nyaya and laugh. We are too busy working to make more money.
And yet, in the middle of stress and other tragic events, joyous and playful elements of life could still be found in occasional incidents of humour.
Last Saturday, I was at Mupedzanhamo Market in Harare, looking for another one of those traditional clay pots, mbiya. Before I got to the arts and crafts section, I stood next to a group of women watching a big bale of second-hand clothes being poured out.
This bale might have come from Australia or the United States, but where it came from really did not matter. All we cared about was to pounce on a new bargain. Maybe a designer skirt that an American woman no longer wanted or perhaps a nice linen shirt from Australia. These second-hand clothes, including used bras and underwear, come into Zimbabwe daily.
We all bent down to rummage through the skirts and blouses to strike a good bargain. It was crowded, noisy, dusty and hot. We were squashed against each other, women with babies on their backs and others without.
Two young men shouted, “New bhero, new bhero, rauya nhasi, it came today! (New bale! New bale!) Then one voice suddenly rose way above all the others shouting. “Kotamai, madzimai! Kotamai!) Bent over, women! Bent over!”
We all turned to the man shouting. He raised his voice even higher, urging us all to bend over and then left. He was just a passerby with a message. We looked at each other and there was a loud burst of laughter. The tension to compete for bargains was broken. With our heads down, conversations started.
“Where are you from? Ah, all the way from Masvingo to buy clothes here at Mupedzanhamo? And where do you sell them?”
We started sharing and throwing skirts at each other. I paused to straighten my back and make friends with a crying baby on one woman’s back.
Grateful for the attention, the baby started smiling and laughing. The baby’s mother took one look at me and said, “Aunt, imbobatai mwana, (please hold the baby) so I can collect the clothes I need. This is a good bale.”
I played with baby. He giggled and laughed and his mother relaxed and laughed too. Amidst the noise, dust, the smell of a toilet nearby, we talked and laughed, as women do, even though we did not know each other and may never meet again.
In the globalised world of technology and progress, we have forgotten how to laugh and to enjoy the simple things of life. That sense of freedom went away with the desire for good civilised etiquette and English decorum, zvakapera nechirungu.
Whenever my niece Shuvai in America calls, she says we are better off here in Zimbabwe because our spirits are free, takasununguka, and we can have a good laugh even when we are going through hard times.
Before she went to America, Shuvai was a happy person. She could laugh. She rolled on the ground, cried, kuchema misodzi nekuseka.
Shuvai says that same kind of hearty laughter has not happened to her for years.
Because over there in America, just like the UK, Australia and all these countries we go to to look for money and happiness, there is not enough time to talk and laugh.
Life is all about work and nothing else but work to make money and pay the bills.
After work, we watch television looking for something in British and American comedies that might excite, entertain, pleasure and make us laugh.
Although we have more than one huge television sitting in our big houses, we laugh a lot less now because we do not fully understand the culture and the context in which the English humorous acts are played out.
Our village communities ruptured and discontinuities have happened over time.
How we laugh, what we laugh at, who we laugh with, and where we laugh, has changed.
We used to laugh at humorous skits during funerals because Shona culture allowed us to use humour as a way to cope with the tragic events around us.
But that is changing too. We no longer laugh as much for fear of letting go too much of ourselves.
At church, we are even more serious and prayerful because we have adopted the tone of polite etiquette that came with Christianity and civilised English manners.
The English way of laughing is not chikwee.
Traditional humour, jokes and irony help to defuse the seriousness of difficult situations.
While it is no longer possible to return to the freedom of village laughter, we should create more ways to share stories of the past and the present.
Laughter provides playful elements of life and helps to free us to be who we are.
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.