BEFORE independence, on Rhodes and Founders day in early July, my father came back to the village from Salisbury. He brought some groceries and a small bag full of coins to give away to village people.
On the night of his arrival, he sat on the bench in Mbuya VaMandirowesa’s kitchen hut drinking Castle Lager from a big bottle and smoking Star cigarettes while other village men drank village beer and smoked tobacco rolled in khaki paper.
Speaking mostly in English and translating it to Shona, my father said drinking Western beer and smoking was a sign of new wealth, class and money.
And education was the key to wealth and success.
Then he told us stories about rich Africans in Salisbury and how they did not wait for independence to get rich. They went to Fort Hare University in South Africa and were back home now, already practising as doctors and lawyers.
Other rich people were smart businessmen owning buses and shops all over Highfields and Mbare. Most of these new rich Africans lived in Marimba Park near Mufakose.
They employed black people as maids and gardeners, the same way white people did.
He had been to the house of one prominent African businessman and over there he saw a Malawian man dressed in a chef’s uniform, serving English food at the table full of black people only.
We sat there, around the kitchen hut fire, wide eyed and dreamt of getting rich one day. Towards the end of the evening, my father put his Castle lager down, got up and sang a song about meeting Joshua Nkomo and dying for the country: “Pota neko tisangane nhai Nkomo, tinofira nyika yedu!”
Mbuya and my mother begged him to stop singing because such political songs were banned by Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government and they would get him arrested.
But my father would not listen, saying down here in the village he was a free man.
What colonial official would come down to the Tribal Trust Lands to listen to a political song emerging from a distant village hut?
Since it was a holiday to celebrate the coming of Cecil John Rhodes and finding of Rhodesia, we did not go to work in the fields.
Instead, we got up late the following morning, washed from buckets, rubbed our skin with peanut butter oil, dressed in nice clothes and sat in the sun, pamushana.
Mbuya and my mother opened the groceries my father had brought from Salisbury.
They made sweet Tanganda tea and we helped ourselves to the thick slices of bread with Sun jam spread out in the rusero tray.
Meanwhile, my father polished his shoes, put on his suit and tie and prepared for his village walk with my grandfather Sekuru Dickson.
My father carried the small bag of coins and they went around from one village hut to the other, giving away one penny to children, a tickey or three pence to older kids and two and six pence to the adults.
Women ululated and thanked my father for his generosity. But Mbuya said giving away money like that was dangerous because it demonstrated that my father was rich. And yet, he hardly had anything at all besides his suit and the monthly income he got from working as a clerk at The Grain Marketing Board.
She said my father was likely to get bewitched by jealous neighbours because showing off like that was a very bad way to display non-existent wealth.
My father argued that in Christian terms, when you give away money, God blesses you with more riches in the immediate future or in heaven.
Mbuya scoffed and said his Englishness was like diarrhoea, chizungu manyoka.
“You are proud of the little money you have, you will die a poor man, unodada netumari tushoma, uchafa uri rombe,” she said. But my father said if he was to die a poor man, his children would not be poor because education assured them of future money.
And so all ten of us children studied very hard until we got into nursing, teaching and after independence some of us went to university and got PhD’s. We believed in my father’s dream of education, wealth and success.
We dreamt of having cars, houses, good clothes, plenty of food, sofas, supersonic radio system with big speakers, televisions and refrigerators.
My father died before independence, before he could tell us and many others like us, how we were going to deal with money and success when we finally get it.
He would not have imagined that days will come when in one family alone there would be many cellphones, IPods, Ipads, televisions, spa baths, computers, refrigerators and more than one car.
If my father had predicted the future, he should have told us how much we were going to keep, when to know we have enough and how much to circulate among the poor relatives in the villages and those not related to us. Greed and selfishness crept upon us when we were quite unaware.
During my Diaspora days in 2008, while living in the United States, I fell in love and lusted for a Hummer, that big monstrous car designed by General Motors.
It is similar to the big trucks Americans used during the Iraq war. Because I had a good job working for an organisation that helped the poor in California, I could walk into any American bank and get a loan.
But before I went to the bank, I looked around for a Hummer in the papers and it was not cheap.
Then over dinner one day, my friend Andrew’s wife said that on the board of their church was a car dealer who really wanted to help people from Africa.
He wanted an opportunity to help Africans with whatever little help he could give because he felt so sorry for what had been done by the white man in that continent. Andrew’s wife mentioned my name to the car dealer.
Within a few days, Timothy Higgins from the Hummer car dealer shop in Pasadena called me. Tim was very excited to help someone from a village in Africa so far away. “God does amazing things”, his big American voice resonated over the phone.
He would give me a good price for a brand new Hummer H3. This car could go on any terrain and the rough roads of Africa would be nothing.
The Hummer had excellent off road capabilities, V8 power engine, functional interior design, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes and brake-controlled traction control. I was going to get it for just under US$28 000, a lot cheaper than other four wheel drives.
After talking to Timothy, I thanked God for the opportunity to own a Hummer. It did not matter that the car would guzzle fuel and in Zimbabwe fuel was not cheap. I just wanted people in the village to see how rich I had become.
Not even the MP or any of the local businessmen in Hwedza had a Hummer.
Timothy asked me come over and he showed me a wide range of Hummers in different colours. I chose mine — a brand new silver H3 Hummer.
Before I went to borrow the money from the bank, I sat in a coffee shop in Santa Anita mall amidst the noise of shoppers and dreamt.
I could see myself arriving in Harare as the proud owner of a Hummer. I would clear it at customs, hopefully without greasing anyone’s hands too much.
Then I would invite my two sisters-in-law, Mai Shuvai and Mai Kumbi, my brother Sydney and one mechanical minded nephew to come along for the drive.
I would not have too many relatives in my car because this was a Hummer and not a Kombi.
We were going to stop at all stations so Sydney and the mechanic cousin can stoke up the cooler box with more Castle lagers.
We would begin by stopping at Makoni in Chitungwiza, Ziko, Mushandirapamwe, Hwedza, Chigwedere, Maware and drive all the way to St Columbus School. The Hummer would stop in the village compound, right in front of my mother’s kitchen hut.
I could see my mother and all the people singing and dancing to celebrate my car. They would pour beer on it as ritual to thank the ancestors for my new success.
Still sitting in the coffee shop in the mall, I called my sister Charity in Zimbabwe with the good news. “Guess what,” I said. “I am going to buy a Hummer.” There was a moment of silence and I repeated my announcement.
Then she laughed and said, “Unopenga kani? Usina imba? Are you crazy? You do not have a house and you want to buy a Hummer? Will you live in a car?” I woke up to my senses. That was the end of my dream of wealth as defined by owning a Hummer.
When I returned back to Zimbabwe from the Diaspora, I had to content myself with a dodgy old Toyota Surf that kept on breaking down. I got ripped off by smiling Harare mechanics each time I took it for service. They habitually stole good parts from the car and charged me for replacing them. Quite often I did not have a car and without a car, I was a nobody.
I discovered that we have this habit of defining people and measuring them by the kind of car they drive.
When describing our friends we say, “Remember Farai who drives a blue BMW, Steve who drives the new black Mercedes 500 SE or that man who built an eight-bedroomed house for his first wife and a similar one for his small house.”
Money and wealth defines us these days and not so much our level of education or morality.
We no longer hesitate to speak casually about that man who stole so much from the company and now lives in the huge mansion built with the stolen money.
Our conscience or sense of what is right and what is wrong, hunhu, has escaped us. We talk about stealing as if it is something really smart that some of us are able to do and get away with.
Worse still, we do not easily (if at all) share or give away the excesses of the goods we have stolen. Even when we have not stolen and are rich through sheer hard work, we have not woken up to the idea of giving to the poor or to charity the way Westerners do.
Why do we keep expecting donors to give to our poor all the time, even when our own granaries are overflowing?
We are suffering from a virus called greed.
The wisdom of our ancestors did not fully prepare us to the culture of giving and sharing in the modern environment. Our greed and desire to get rich and show off our wealth has become a virus eating away the very being of who we were as a people before Western materialism set in.
Given the abundance of the new wealth around us, we could perhaps open the window of the Range Rover a little and notice the poverty.
Surely the spirit of village generosity has not been blinded completely by the surprise wealth from properties, the land and the diamonds?
In my father’s days, a tickey was not a lot of money but it paid for a sweet or two.
Today, ten dollars can pay a term’s school fees of one orphan.
Five dollars can pay grinding mill expenses for one old lady to last her five months, a dollar only per bag a month.
We can still afford to be generous, because we do not lose much by giving away a little.
And people will still know us by the kind of car we drive.
- 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.