The year of hunger

When we were young we used to dance and sing joyously in the rain in anticipation of a bumper harvest

When we were young we used to dance and sing joyously in the rain in anticipation of a bumper harvest

Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday
The big black dog with four eyes and no tail walked into Bokina’s kitchen hut. Bokina said he was the first one to see it. Then his wife also saw it and told the three children not to be afraid. This big dog had been seen elsewhere in some other villages. The dog went over to the kitchen mud shelf and sat just

below the row of yellow and white plates on display. On the dog’s right side was a white big bucket with brown coloured drinking water dug out from the dry river bed.

Bokina and his wife left the dog and the children in the house alone.

They tied a little skinny goat to a rope, took two chickens and walked to our homestead.

It was still early morning last Sunday. My cousin Reuben and I had just come back from a long walk half way down to the Save River when we saw them coming.

We welcomed Bokina and his wife. They sat under the tree, on the bench opposite my mother’s kitchen hut.

We know Bokina well because he is the village fencer. All the barbed wire around our village homestead and the school is done by Bokina’s rough hands. You must brace yourself to greet him because his hands feel like a roughly paved cement floor. When he laughs, move away from him, because he would want to clap your hand.

But this morning, Bokina is not laughing. He is here to tell us about the black dog that has walked into his house and is refusing to leave.

“Imbwa yekwaani?” I asked. They did not answer immediately. Bokina’s wife looked down and smiled with a gentle sweetness. She turned to her husband and let him speak.

Bokina said the dog’s name is called Bhoko Haramu. This dog has nothing to do with Nigeria, or any other place in Africa. It is an unusual dog, seen once before back in 1992. In that year, it stayed for a short while and most people do not remember this dog or any of his ancestors.

But Bokina can describe that dog very well because at that time, he was already an adult. He had just returned from Zambia where he was training to be a priest. He came home in March 1992, before his course was completed because the ancestors had told him that priesthood was not part of his calling.

Bokina speaks English well.

Apart from the local teachers, Bokina is the only one who collects newspapers that I bring to the village.

He reads all the pages before he uses the newspapers as cigarette papers.

We soon learnt that Bhoko Haramu was the phantom name for hunger. Nzara. “There is hunger in my house. Because I fear it, I call this the scary black dog with four eyes and no tail Bhoko Haramu. It’s going to devour me, my wife and the children,” Bokina said.

“So why walk around with a goat and two chickens?” asked Reuben.

Bokina’s wife said there was no cash in the house. There was no cash anywhere.

“Ever since we pounded our Zimbabwean dollar with mortar and pestle, we are suffering. The American dollar is killing us. Bring back the money that we are used to.”

Bokina’s wife is from Bocha, the same place where our niece Shamiso got married. She says back in Bocha, the cattle are dying and maize is $10 per bucket. But people have no money to buy maize. One goat can be exchanged for three buckets of maize and two village “road runner” chickens can be exchanged for one bucket of maize.

“We are back to the barter trade of the past. What can we do when a black dog with four eyes sits in your house?” said Bokina, now laughing and reaching out to shake Reuben’s hand. I saw Reuben wince at the outstretched hand before he offered his hand. They shook hands and laughed together.

Vakaseka nhamo serugare. They laughed at poverty with that self-depreciating tone that eases the pain of suffering.

“Why do Zimbabweans laugh at something that is not even funny?” asked Reuben, as if he was not Zimbabwean himself.

Piri offered Bokina and his wife sweet tea with two slices each smothered with peanut butter.

Then Bokina and his wife talked about the severe drought that was not only ravaging their fields, but had spread right across all the places traditionally known to have poor rainfall. Maize was turning brown, then falling down due to the heat and lack of rain. We have never seen anything like it, they said. “Take a walk down to the village fields and see for yourself,” said Bokina’s wife, as she dipped a piece of bread into her tea, the way we used to do when we were children.

We said the story was the same around Southern Africa. Rueben said it was the El Nino effect caused by climate change. This year, there is hunger, kune nzara.

When I was growing up in this village, I do not recall a time when there was this type of hunger, or a time when the rains did not come. At times, they were late and the elders, vakuru vedu, summoned spirit mediums and they paid libations around the muchakata tree to ask the ancestors for rain. When the rains came we danced and sang: “Mvura ngainaye tidye mapudzi.” Let it rain, so we can eat pumpkins.

I recall that at night we heard frogs joining our praise songs to the ancestors. Within weeks of the rain falling, the once dry countryside was green. Trees had new leaves and the birds sang. The squirrels were out in the sun. The Save River flowed, taking away all the dry debris and dust to the Indian Ocean. Our cows grew fatter. My mother and all the women in the village shared and exchanged groundnut and pumpkin seeds.

Before sunrise we ploughed the fields and sowed maize, sorghum and groundnuts. The crops came up competing with the weeds. For weeks, we pulled the weeds out. Our backs ached.

Some mornings my mother and the other women went to the hills to gather wild mushrooms. They knew when the mushrooms would come up and where to find them. By late afternoon they presented baskets of fresh mushrooms to my grandmother Mbuya VaMandirowesa. Mbuya carefully examined the mushrooms and threw away all the poisonous ones. She instructed her co-wives and my mother to cook the good ones. My mother boiled and salted the rest of the mushrooms and sun-dried them on the granite rocks, kuruware.

Friday was chisi, a special rest day for us to remember and honour the ancestors. We did not work in the fields then. When all the weeding was over, we rested our aching backs and waited for the end of the rains. Then harvest time began.

We spread the peanuts, red sorghum — zviyo, mapfunde and mhunga — to dry in the sun on the flat granite rocks to dry. Everything obeyed the natural rhythm of time and got dry at its own pace.

When the harvest was over and our granaries were full, my mother and all the women in the compound spent seven days brewing beer to thank the ancestors for the good harvest, goho rakanaka. The beer was strong and intoxicating.

But that was some time ago, before and after the liberation war, before the land reform, before the sanctions and the 2008 hunger.

Now in 2016, we are seeing a hunger that we have not seen before or ever imagined. Since when do we feel such unforgiving heat in the middle of February, see fields of maize turn into brown then falling down, rivers running dry and granaries swept empty?

In our village this week, they have started to do barter trade for maize, while they wait for donors to arrive. Last week, one donor came with 20 kilogrammes of beans and rice. People lined up in the heat and for a few hours. They had food on the plate for a few days. But next week, they will have nothing.

Bokina offered us his goat in exchange for four buckets of maize. We had 10 bags in the house. But if we took the goat, what do we do with it? My brother Sydney said we could be in business, if we bring maize from Harare and exchange with goats and chickens. Reuben was excited. He immediately reached out for his IPad and started working on what he called, “The Barter Trade Business Model.”

“If this black dog called hunger was visiting me alone, I would hang myself,” said Bokina laughing again. “But, what can you do about a situation that affects us all? We share the misery. God and the ancestors must have something to do with this hunger. What else can we say?”

  • Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.
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