Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
OVER the past seven years, I have been coming here to my village in Chikomba East. Most of the time I am accompanied by my cousin Piri and my brother Sidney. Sometimes, my other cousin Reuben, the one who returned from Australia two years ago, also comes with us. Once I get here, I often find time to sit in my thatched rondavel and write about what is happening in the village.
This is my home and source of inspiration. For the past six and a half years, I have been writing in this column about the cultural values and traditions that are being eroded as a result of our migration to the city and to the Diaspora.
I came back here after more than 25 years living in the UK, Australia and the United States. My friends in the Diaspora said I was mad to leave a nice Western lifestyle in the USA and return to the poverty and economic upheavals of Zimbabwe.
The main reason for my return to the village was to look after my ailing mother. She lived in this village where I was born.
With the help of my sisters and others, we cared for our mother until she sadly passed away in 2012.
I wrote about my mother’s death in this column in an article titled, “The Buffalo has departed”. My mother was popularly known by her totem, Nyati, the Buffalo. It was during the time I stayed in the village looking after her that I began to look back to where I had come from and discover the richness of our culture and history.
I listened to people and was inspired to generate ideas and reclaim some of the lost values of our past. Memories of childhood came back as I participated in the village rituals of work, pleasure, conversations and the ceremonies. As a child, growing up here, I had never fully understood why my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, seemed to be in constant conflict with anything modern that was presented by missionaries, teachers and people who worked for the European colonial native administrator. Some of the verbal fights between Mbuya and my mother were to do with the education of girls.
Mbuya was totally against it. But my parents said we should be educated.
The country was changing and one day, Zimbabwe was going to be free from colonial rule. Educated people would help build the country after brutal colonialism had been destroyed through war or negotiation. I went to boarding school where I became a born-again Christian. I then decided that almost everything about my village life was backward and primitive. I wanted a life in Europe or somewhere away from village poverty and hardship.
When I lived in England, I just wanted to be English. In Australia, I just wanted to be Australian, whatever that meant. In America, I tried to be American or African American. It did not work.
In 2008, when I was in the USA, my sister Charity, the one who lived in Zimbabwe working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called and asked me to come home. She said, “Stop being a dzvatsvatsva”. By this, she was associating me with that spider that moves around so fast and can never be seen in one place for long.
But I was at a stage where I was a senior executive in an international development organisation. It was a demanding job requiring a lot of global travelling in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I was being invited to schools, women’s groups, churches and conferences to talk about how I escaped village poverty. I flew around the United States and gladly spoke about my poor relatives in Zimbabwe, as if I was no longer one of them.
But, I did not forget my home. I often dreamt of the village and longed for the sound of drums, hands clapping and the rhythmic dances. I wanted to see the moon rising over the hills. That moonlight so bright that you could learn to read from it. Stars scattered all over like maize on a foot path. The changing colours of the mountains and the faithful Save River and her big water holes full of water in all seasons.
I longed to go back to that past. Yet that past was only memory and there was something else undefined in its place.
Then I was forced to return home and not just to Harare, but to this village, where my mother and all the people I had grown up with lived. Back here in the village, Mbuya VaMandirowesa was long gone. It was a time of reflection, trying hard to revisit the past and discover what it means to be Zimbabwean. I began writing more about Mbuya VaMandirowesa, my grandmother. In many ways, you could say, I was seeking atonement for having denigrated the village and trying to run away from my past.
Here I was, back to where I started, seeing the graves of the ancestors who had since departed. I recalled the memories of my youth and heard the voices of Mbuya VaMandirowesa. I felt the shared pain of village loss and saw possibilities of a renewal.
One day, in early March this year, a group of us women walked to Chiwara Village for a funeral. It had been raining the night before and the ground was very wet. My cousin sister Mai Munyaradzi was in front, followed by Mai Chakwanda, Mai Martha, Piri and myself. When we arrived at Chinyika River, we took off our shoes and waddled through the knee-high water.
As others put on their shoes, I sat on a rock, struggling awkwardly to fit my wet feet into my old leather boots. Then Mai Chakwanda addressed me by my totem saying, “Chihera, we have been talking among ourselves as women. The men, led by Malvern Svinurai, have also been talking. We feel that you ought to represent Chikomba East in the forthcoming primary elections as our Member of Parliament.”
Piri jumped and clapped her hands, almost falling into the flowing river.
“Mauya zvakanaka Moyondizvo. Ndiyo nyaya yatakabvira kare iyoyo Sisi vachiramba.” You have brought us some good news. We have been asking sister to step up and contest but she refuses.
That was true. I had been asked by a number of people to contest as an MP for Chikomba East. People around here and in the villages beyond often commented on the development projects that we had been working on with the community.
They pointed to the Simukai Project, funded by the former Australian Ambassador and other private foundations. These included a community hall, grinding mill, chicken project, several boreholes, community gardens and preschool feeding kitchen for the children. But these developments had only occurred among the people around my village and in Sengwe, where my mother came from.
Some people said we need to focus on development in Chikomba East as well as in the west and central areas.
There was indeed an urgent need for us as a community to rebuild roads or develop new ones, to build clinics, bridges and schools as well as improve agriculture so that there is more food for the people.
Reuben and others had consistently said that they needed people like me with experience in rural development and contacts in the overseas donor community to come back and use their skills here in Chikomba East.
Then one early morning in mid-March, more than 80 people arrived in our village homestead, mobilised by Mai Chakwanda, Malvern Svinurai, Carryon Muchedzi and others. They said they wanted shoes to walk and carry out door-to-door campaign for me to contest against seven other male candidates.
I accepted. With the help and support of the people of Chikomba East, I won the primary elections on the 29th of April.
I am very grateful to the people in the villages and readers of this column who have given me enormous feedback, including thoughts about their concerns with where we are going as a country.
I received views of people in the Diaspora, who long to come home and was enriched by the wisdom of the elders and ideas written to me. All this and the conversations with readers have helped me to create stories that capture the reality of our lived experiences as a people.
Much of what I have written for more than six years has been inspired by questions to do with home and belonging. Who are we? Where did we come from? What is our history? Where are we going? What is our spiritual connection to the past and to the present? How do we rebuild the country for the benefit of future generations?
Seeking a position as Member of Parliament for Chikomba East is the logical step that has been rekindled by my return to the village and the passion to bring about development change at village level. As a result, my weekly column is sadly coming to an end. This is my last story.
But this is not totally a goodbye or a final farewell. No. The Herald has kindly and generously asked me to continue writing as a guest, when a story does arise. I shall continue to do so, because the experiences and struggles of our past and present must be told so that we can look to the future with hope and build our identity as a nation.
In closing this chapter, I want to thank you, the readers. Above all, I want to praise Mwari and the ancestors for giving us this heritage that is called Zimbabwe.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.