Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
Saturday morning last week. We are sitting silently in a large kitchen hut in Maisvoreva Village, Chikomba East, along Chinyika River. In this round hut we are more than 40 women, some sitting on the bench while most of us are facing the empty fireplace with our bare feet touching each other in the cold ashes. There are no men here.
Three or four older men are sitting outside near the granary. Some young men are skinning the goat hanging from the big mango tree.
My sister Mai Munyaradzi starts a song called “MuKristu Usanete” and the kitchen hut is filled with beautiful melodious voices of women.
We are gathered here together for the nyaradzo in memory of Tonderai Maisvoreva, who died while digging up a soak away trench in Harare at the end of last year.
Sometimes the song brings tears to Tonderai’s grandmother Mbuya Maisvoreva and a few others.
But generally, the atmosphere here is more of a fellowship and social gathering before the Anglican priest comes.
“I am worried about my new clay pots. It has been raining for a very long time and I cannot make a furnace to heat them,” says Mai Kuvheya, the village pottery maker.
Others join in to say that they have also not been able to work outside the home due to the rain. Some maize and groundnuts are beginning to rot in the rain-soaked fields.
“My hands are becoming as soft as those of a European woman who never does any rough work with her hands,” says Mai Noble laughing.
“Look.” She lifts her big hands in the air and the women laugh saying it does not matter how many days a village woman’s hands lie idle, the hands will always be rough. I discretely feel the softness of my own hands. They are soft because these hands have not done any village hard work for years, apart from briefly sowing sweet potato cuttings last week.
As the women talk about the state of their crops due to the continuing unusual rain, I look around at the rough hands of these mothers. How many years have their hands tilled the soil, looked for firewood, washed clothes, cooked sadza, scrubbed floors and worked every single day?
The hands of our mothers are rough. They have tirelessly worked for other people.
Some years ago, when I lived in London, an English friend of mine said, “What does your mother do?” I said, “Nothing, she is just a village house wife.” The friend then said, “Really? And how did she manage to send you to school after your father died?”
“Oh, my mother used to make clay pots and sell them to raise money for our school fees. She would also crotchet doilies, sell petticoats and groundnuts, and do other stuff,” I said.
At that time, I did not want to talk about the village and my background.
That part of my growing up in the village homestead with my grandmother Mbuya VaMadirowesa and so many other people belonged to the past history that I wanted to forget.
I was living in London now. I had made it to the big centre of civilisation where all those European missionaries who preached the Gospel in Africa came from.
I could speak English well and even mimic some words in the English accent almost perfectly.
When I thought about the village, I had memories of my mother and my grandmother Mbuya VaMandirowesa grinding the fermented millet or mamera by hand.
Sometimes there was a competition between my mother and Mbuya on who could get up early and grind the most mamera before sunrise. My mother was always the first to rise, but she could never compete with Mbuya on production.
Once Mbuya got on her knees and started singing and grinding, her speed could not be matched by anyone. You would see her face and shaved head covered with the flour from mamera.
Mbuya took short breaks to push snuff up her nostrils. Her nose always carried the remnants of brown snuff, especially around her nostrils.
My mother said the grinding competition was not fair because Mbuya used something to enhance her grinding performance. She said Mbuya’s snuff was not just snuff made from tobacco. No. Mbuya and her cousin VaManyemu used to add some dry greenish brown leaves from a special plant to give them more energy to grind.
Some years later, we found out that Mbuya’s special green leaf was marijuana. She crushed the leaves and added them to her snuff. This means Mbuya was probably quite high when she sang while grinding mamera.
This illegal performance-enhancing drug gave her the arrogance to challenge all the women in the village homestead to outperform her grinding.
Mbuya used similar energy, though slower and more careful speed, when grinding peanut butter.
Her hands were a lot rougher than those of my mother. Perhaps this was due to age and more years of hard work.
My mother was best known for her skill in making pottery, kuumba hari.
She collected the clay from particular layers in the sub soils by the river. Dry clay was then ground into fine powder on flat grinding stone. Then she sifted it with a winnowing basket and the dry powder left behind was mixed with water and prepared for making pottery.
Then she made a circular platform as a base for the pot and built meticulous series of coils. When the pots were all dry, my mother asked us to look for the special bark of a tree, makwati, which were used in a dug up furnace to heat the pots until they were a beautiful brick colour.
There were some beautiful stacked clay pots in Mbuya VaMandirowesa and my mother’s kitchen huts. They oiled the pots with peanut butter oil.
These traditional kitchens had elaborate shelves made of polished clay.
Back in those days, our mother’s kitchen hut was the place where the women used to work most.
Everything that happened in the homestead often centred on the work done by women in the kitchen hut.
The hard work of child birth was done here. Food was cooked here and ceremonies held here. When people died, which was rare in those days, their bodies were kept in the hut overnight and people sang and danced with such energy and vigour.
Our hard working village mothers are not hard to recognise. They have a certain way of dressing, walking and talking. A certain way to tie their headscarf, wear their shoes or wrap around their cloths. These village mothers often sit cross legged or they have their legs outstretched in front of them.
When they come to town, you often spot the mothers sitting somewhere, waiting and watching the world silently, their tired hands lying easily on the lap.
Their hands are rough, discoloured and cracked with short or broken finger nails, testimony to years and years of hard work. These hands have never been touched by the gentle hands of the manicure and pedicure lady.
The lives of our mothers are characterised by the colonial historical conditions in which they lived.
Many of them grew up without National Identification certificates in areas with no schools, shops, hospitals or clinics. They worked hard and collaborated with the freedom fighters in the liberation war for this land.
When the land finally came, some were too old to move and work in the resettlement areas. Others followed their children to the resettlement areas where they now suffer from backache, pulling a few weeds here and there with their arthritic hands.
Some of our village mothers have now been dragged to places in Johannesburg, London, Toronto, Melbourne, Auckland and everywhere.
Their Diaspora children have plucked them out of the village, secured a visitor’s visa to take them on and a plane visiting the grandchildren, sons, daughters or daughters in law.
Over there, in the faraway cities, the mothers will get everything they want to eat. Bread, meat, chips, hamburgers, fried chicken, pork ribs, cakes, soft drinks and beer. Their hands are bored and idle.
“Mawoko angu aneta nekugara. Mvura ngaimire veduwe,” said Mai Maisvoreva, meaning her hands are tired of not doing as long as it continues to rain.
I looked at the cracked hands around me and said the rain is asking the women to rest their hands for a while.
But some of them laughed saying the hands of a woman are meant to work for the family, kuriritira mhuri.
On International Women’s Day, let us celebrate the hands of our mothers. Those rough hands have made us who we are.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.