Dr Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
“Village marriages last longer than urban ones,” says my cousin Piri, wistfully looking at a couple sharing soft drinks and fresh buns at Muzorori & Sons store. We have stopped at our old shopping centre. This place was the life of all the villages around here before independence. I take another look at the couple and recognise them immediately. The woman with a light pink skirt, matching blouse and head scarf, characteristic of the Mwazha Apostolic Faith Church clothing, is Chingasiyeni. Next to her is Zivanai.
He is a tall man with a shaved head and a long beard.
I played a major role in the courtship between Zivanai and Chingasiyeni, many years ago, when I was living here in the village.
Before the war came to our village, long before independence, I went to St Columbus Primary School. I learnt to write love letters for Chingasiyeni and delivered them in person to Zivanai, when he was the boy from behind the mountains. Chingasiyeni, or Chinga as we called her, could not write.
During that courtship period, even Zivanai did not know that I wrote the letters on Chingasiyeni’s behalf because I always signed: “Yours truly Chinga, Ndini wako Chinga.”
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. She suffered an unfortunate incident that stopped her from getting an education.
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 and sometimes people laughed at her. Our class teacher was Miss Rwodzi. She used to speak softly in English most of the time.
Miss Rwodzi said there was no point in coming to school unless we memorised how to request for permission to leave the classroom and visit the 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. Miss Rwodzi smelt nice because every day she sprayed a perfume called Impulse in her armpits and all over her clothes.
One day Chingasiyeni was desperate to go to the toilet but she could not remember how to excuse herself in English. Shona was not allowed. Chinga moved closer to my ear and asked how she could make a toilet request in English. Miss Rwodzi saw her and ordered her to stop whispering immediately. 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.
So with the confidence of one who spoke more English words than most of my peers I lifted up my hand high and asked for permission to speak. Madam Rwodzi said I could speak.
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 frowned like she had just smelt something really unpleasant. She grabbed a ruler and slapped me hard, on my bare shaved head. “Why do you speak for her? What happened to Chingasiyeni’s mouth? Has she lost her lips?” Humiliated, I sat down.
Miss Rwodzi then told us to shut up or she would send us all out of the classroom to water the school gardens as punishment. Suddenly, the whole classroom was quiet. Chingasiyeni shuffled around and struggled to squeeze her legs tightly together. Miss Rwodzi continued with the English lesson.
Chingasiyeni could not hold back her need to use the lavatory. Then we saw a stream of water emerging like a thin snake from under her legs. It flowed slowly over the polished mud floor.
Those of us in the way of the stream jumped up, pulling our goatskin mats with us. Others pointed and jeered at Chingasiyeni.
Miss Rwodzi slapped her hard on the head with the ruler and told her to leave the classroom immediately. Chingasiyeni did. Fearing punishment from Miss Rwodzi and more humiliation from the other school kids, Chingasiyeni never came back to school. She never learnt to read or write love letters.
At that time, Zivanai was a few years older and already in Grade 5, reading and writing well in English. After Grade 5, 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 her and the others talking, flirting and laughing in the school grounds for a while before the girls hurried straight home before sunset. A good girl was not to be seen with a boy after sunset. She waited to be approached by the boy through a love letter.
One day Chingasiyeni received her first love letter from Zivanai. She secretly came to our village homestead, hiding the letter in her pocket. We sat on the flat rocks, kuruware, away from prying eyes. Inside the envelope was a folded letter with intricate patterns of various shapes, triangles and hexagons. Chingasiyeni unfolded it slowly and gave me the letter. Then she sat next to me with legs stretched, her hand on her cheek and she listened.
The letter was written in both English and Shona. It read something like this:
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. 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,
When I was reading the letter, Chingasiyeni could not stop smiling. 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.
“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.
I tore a page from my exercise book and she dictated the words for the reply. I wrote:
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.
It was not a rejection letter but the first one in a pretend “I do not love you” letters. After the fourth letter, Chingasiyeni asked me to write a letter declaring her love and willingness to marry Zivanai. 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
I took the liberty to add the last romantic sentences from a Mills & 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.
Many years later, we meet Chingasiyeni with Zivanai at our village shopping centre. They look mature, calm and content.
We go over to them and do the several handshake greetings. When the laughter and jokes stop, Piri asks: “So, how many Christmas days have you two shared together since Sis wrote the love letters for you?” The secret of my past ghost letter writing skills is well known in the village.
Chinga sips her Fanta, chews a bun and smiles. “Many. And God be praised.” Piri then asks for the recipe to a long lasting marriage. Zivani strokes his long beard, looks at Chingasiyeni with warm eyes and says: “A long marriage has nothing to do with education. A mix of love, shared spirituality, friendship and trust is what has helped us to see so many Christmas days together.”
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.