Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday—
New Year’s Day 2017. Last night there were fireworks, celebration, laughter, singing, drinking and dancing. People singing Happy New Year! Happy New Year! In Zimbabwe, they danced and messages on social media said, Tapinda! Tapinda! We are in. At church, they praised the Lord that we have seen another year.
I look at myself in the mirror, as I do every day. But today, on January 1 2017, I see gray hairs. They are not new. I have seen quite a few of them growing around me in many places. Each time I see this sprouting gray hair, I feel a little sad, as if getting older is bad. I wonder why we celebrate a new year and yet, some of us still try so hard to look younger and more youthful? We fear getting old.
I turn away from myself in the mirror because at this particular moment on New Year’s Day, I want to look and feel younger. I sit in front of the television. As if the television was reading my mind, I see young beautiful well-groomed women presenting a lifestyle show. I want to look like them. But I know it’s not possible. I switch off the television and reflect. Should I really have remained younger? If I was younger than I am now, would I have experienced or reached a certain sense of contentment I get when I sit on a village rock back in the village? Perhaps not.
So I walk out of the house, into the bush, looking for a rock to sit on. Rocks are good places to sit. Some people might call it meditation, but I have always sat on a rock to think or to simply sit. That was long before I knew the word meditation.
I reflect on the stages that have shaped my life and that of others around me.
This life began in the Rhodesian colonial era, when we lived in the village. I was born in my mother’s hut, kudongo or the old homestead ruins where we all used to live in the big compound. In that homestead, there was Mbuya VaMandirowesa, my paternal grandmother. She was powerful, tall, light skinned and feared. She was the first wife of my grandfather, Sekuru Dickson. There were five or maybe more other wives after her. My mother was the first muroora or daughter in law and everyone called her Maiguru. She cooked for my uncles and many other people.
There were 10 of us children, eight girls and two boys. I was child number six. We went to St Columbus School because my father said it was important to be civilised. Mbuya said the boys should learn to write so they could be clerks at the Native Administrator’s offices.
This way, the people in our village would not have to stand in a long line waiting to get birth certificates if one of our relatives was a clerk. She said this because my father and his brothers had waited three days to get a chitupa or national identification certificate in Enkeldoorn, now Chivhu. In those days, you were not allowed to look for work unless you had chitupa.
Mbuya used to tell us stories about her journey on foot to Chivhu near Charter Estates. They camped outside the Native Administrator’s office for three days waiting to get my father’s chitupa. The African guards and clerks treated them badly. “It was the khaki uniform, the shoes and a big stick that made them treat people like dogs,” said Mbuya.
So, growing up, we believed that my brothers, Sydney and Charles, were going to be clerks at the District Commissioner’s office and my older sisters would get married after Sub A or Sub B. Mbuya said girls should stay home and grow up to be good wives. But my parents did not agree. Education was the future, said my father.
After St Columbus School we went to the Methodist boarding school where I saw Europeans up close for the first time. There was Miss Hutchinson, the missionary from Sheffield, England. She did not only teach us how to speak English. No. She taught us to accept Jesus Christ as our person Saviour. She said we were born in sin and that believing in ancestors was wrong.
These ancestors were never going to help us enter the Kingdom of God unless we turn to Jesus and admit that we were sinners. Among many village practices that she condemned was polygamy, beer drinking, early marriages, playing drums and mbira and dancing to them.
I believed in everything that Miss Hutchinson said. Everything. After all, she came from England and she was British.
Great Britain owned the empire. Miss Hutchinson belonged to the same people that we read about in Enid Blyton’s books, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare and DH Lawrence. I imagined her village in England to be very clean and orderly with people who drank tea with plenty of sugar. The English ate cakes, slept on beds with sheets and had black servants to clean and cook for them.
One day, I came back home from school and told Mbuya that I had accepted Jesus Christ as my own personal Saviour. I was a new person in Christ. The past was all gone and I had a bright future in which I walked with Jesus. With confidence gained from praying with white people, I told Mbuya that I no longer wanted to be called by the name Sekai, because it was native, ignorant and backward. I also did not want to carry my great grandmother’s name Nyandoro.
I bravely asked Mbuya to summon the elders and tell them that they had made a mistake in gathering together when I was eight or ten during a ceremony to place the ancestor´s name on me. They should have given it to somebody else and not me. I said I was anointed by Jesus and could no longer belong to the people who worshipped the spirits of ancestors.
I recall Mbuya’s response quite vividly. She said, “Babawe Moyo! Ngakatibvire. Koti kusviba saa Nyandoro!” These words really hurt because she was telling me that I was as dark skinned as Nyandoro, this old ancestor whose name was now representing an uncivilised burden on me. My mother said Mbuya was right. We do not renounce our names when we claim to be Christians. English and Shona names must remain side by side.
I did not dwell on Mbuya or even my mother’s scolding for long because I had the power of Jesus within me. Did the Bible not say, somewhere in the book of Isaiah, they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength?
They shall fly up high like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. With that verse in mind, I felt a renewed strength. I started to regularly climb the hill and read my Bible sitting on a rock.
When I quietly disappeared like that, my sister Charity accused me of running away from the village duties. She was the physically strong one who did most of work, helping my mother to cook, wash, grind, fetch water and brew beer. “Iwe! Uchadya Bhaiberi!” Charity shouted, telling me to come and work. She said unless I contributed to household duties, she would force me to eat the Bible. She meant it.
Throughout my high school years, I wanted to go to England so I could become more British and possibly come back home and preach the Gospel to those who did not know Jesus, especially Mbuya VaMandirowesa.
Later on I flew to England and discovered that England was not the same England of my imagination. The white people who became my friends did not even go to church. I made the journey by train from London hoping to meet Miss Hutchinson in Sheffield. But she was dead. I was hosted by the Mellors who used to be Methodist missionaries at Kwenda Mission. They were kind, as they had always been. I did not tell the Mellors that my faith had already started to wane. My doubts in the meaning of civilisation were increasing.
Then I moved to Australia and later to America where I discovered that churches were closing down and some were being converted into bars.
What then, was the meaning of Christian civilisation? Perhaps, Mbuya VaMandirowesa was right; we have our own belief in God, Mwari, the Creator, who was no different from the Christian God. Perhaps, my sister Charity was right too, that we are first and foremost Africans with a history deeply rooted in our culture, religion and values. We must be proud of who we were created to be.
The year 2017 has arrived. Mbuya VaMandirowesa, my father, mother, some of my siblings and Charity among them, are gone. We have followed the tradition and carried out the kurova guva ceremonies, bringing their spirits back to live among us. As ancestors, the dead communicate with the elders, vakatungamira, those who went ahead to the land beyond.
Like us, the dead once celebrated many new years during their lifetime. Some lived into old age but others did not. But now they are looking at us, protecting us and speaking to God and to the ancestors. And maybe to Jesus too. We do not know. But what we know is that as another year starts, we celebrate age and past experiences. We look to the future with hope.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.