Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
“This is my mother-in-law, Ambuya vangu, my wife’s mother,” says the clean-shaven gentleman wearing khaki three quarter pants, a white T-shirt and brown sandals. He taps the lady in front of him and says, “Mhamha, this is my friend Steve, from Botswana. We work together.”
Steve shakes hands with the mother-in-law and says, nice to meet you. Ambuya is elderly, possibly in her late 70s and looks fit. She is wearing a caftan type colourful African dress, a matching head scarf covering a wig underneath and flat white shoes.
“You are from Botswana?” asks Ambuya in English.
Steve says yes, mhamha.
“I have never been there. This is my first time to get on the plane. My son-in-law and his wife have brought me here to Victoria Falls. I am very happy,” Ambuya says.
We are standing in line for breakfast at The Kingdom Hotel, Victoria Falls. Although this is the first week of January, the holiday season is not over yet.
The buffet at The Kingdom is an all- you-can-eat affair because the room comes with the breakfast. There is everything to eat here, from fruits, bacon, sausages, smoked salmon, liver, potatoes, eggs, ham, cheese and all kinds of breads. I am here courtesy of my cousin Reuben, my sisters and nieces from the USA.
After spending Christmas in the village, some of us decided to spend a couple of days here. There is a lot of eating activity in this big dining room at The Kingdom Hotel. Ambuya is leading the line waiting at the eggs station. After her comes the son-in-law Steve, myself and there are others behind me.
Earlier on, I had seen Ambuya sitting at a big round table of more than 12 people. There was another elderly lady, a young couple and several young children, including two babies in prams. A Zimbabwean family holiday that includes the older generation is something new.
I last came to Victoria Falls many years ago, when I was living in the UK. I was living in London and had never been to Victoria Falls. I came back for a few weeks and decided to take my mother and two sisters, Charity and Paida, to Victoria Falls.
At first, my mother refused to join us. She said, why would you buy plane tickets, pay for a hotel, just to see mapopoma, the falls? But we said these are no ordinary falls. The spectacular miracle of magnificent beauty and grandeur of the Victoria Falls had always been there since time immemorial. Tourists fly from all over the world to see the Victoria Falls.
“Handiite chirungu chakadaro,” my mother said, meaning she was not going to be part of such a Western lifestyle. But in the end we convinced our mother to come with us. After all, she had spent years giving birth to children, working in the fields, cooking, brewing beer, making pottery, fetching water and working from morning till late at night without ever taking a break.
Our mothers need holidays too. My mother came with us and we shared the same room with my two sisters. After seeing the falls, we went on a boat cruise on the Zambezi River and saw elephants grazing on the Zambian side. As the sun was setting on the river horizon, the European tourists were very excited. They quickly got their cameras ready to take pictures of the sun.
“What is wrong with the sun?” my mother asked. Hanzi zuva raita seiko? We explained that in Europe, people rarely see the sun set because it is so cold and the sky is often grey.
Zimbabwe presents the Europeans with one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. The trip with my mother and two sisters happened many years ago. At that time, we never imagined that our brothers-in-law, vakuwasha, could one day sit at the same dining room table with my mother.
The social distance between them was closely maintained. The guy called Steve from Botswana and the one who is mukuwasha to Ambuya want to catch up. Mukuwasha politely tells me to move past him so he can chat to Steve. I stand next to Ambuya and we greet each other.
“Zvinofadza kuve nemhuri yenyu kuno,” I tell her, meaning, it must be very nice to have her whole family here in Victoria Falls.
She says, “Very nice my dear, very nice. It is a good to have my son and his wife, my daughter and her husband and the children. Then my son-in-law’s mother and his sister’s family are also here. We are one big family. We praise God for the union.”
Ambuya moves towards the chef and he says to her, “How do you like your eggs?” She says she wants any eggs.
“I mean, would you like your eggs scrambled, fried, soft in the middle, hard, sunny side up, sunny side down? Or would you prefer an omelet?” asks the chef.
He is not smiling. He is tall, dark, sweating a bit at the forehead.
“Ndipei chero mazai,” Ambuya says. Give me any eggs. The chef looks a little impatient. At The Kingdom Hotel, chefs serve many people with different tastes. I come to the rescue. Mhama, why don’t you try what I am having? Chef, please prepare two omelets with cheese, tomato, ham, onion and mushrooms.”
Ambuya says to me, “Chekudya chese, ramba waraira.” When it comes to food, you should say no only after you have tasted it. It’s a lyric from an old Bhundu Boys song. We both laugh and wait for our omelets from the expert chef. I do not prompt her. But she speaks very slowly and quietly into to my right ear.
“But, mwanangu, it is not easy to stay in a hotel with your son-in-law, his mother, sister and children. We are becoming so Western. That distance between Ambuya and Mukuwasha is not possible when you are in a hotel like this.
“Yesterday, we sat at the swimming pool watching my daughter-in-law in the same pool with my son-in-law. Later they took the children for a walk to get some ice cream. Ambuya nemukuwasha?”
I nod because I know what Ambuya is referring to. In a family, a brother-in-law, mukuwasha, should have no direct relationship whatsoever with the sister-in-law, muroora, of that family. Shona culture places a strong distance of separation between these two.
Ambuya takes her omelet. “I will see you around,” she says.
As I wait for my omelet, I recall an image in a book by Aaron Chiundura Moyo’s award winning novel called “Ziva Kwawakabva (Know Your Roots)” first published in 1977. In the book, Ngoni is the protagonist, or main actor. He is a young man, born and bred in a rural village. He leaves home to go and look for work in town.
He marries a woman from a well-to-do family. Ngoni admires the Western lifestyle of his new in laws. He looks down upon his past life in the village. But Ngoni does not stop there; he despises his own rural-based parents and sees them as backward and uncivilised.
There is a scene in “Ziva Kwawakabva”, where Ngoni and his mother-in-law are dancing in each other’s arms. The song is called “Tomorrow is Forever.” Ngoni thinks this is the new way of life. The distance between mother-in-law and his son-in-law is no longer sacred.
Chiundura Moyo wrote about the erosion of social distance between mother-in-law and son-in-law in 1977. When we read the book, we thought it was just comedy. Surely a mother-in-law, Ambuya, would not be seen in the arms of a son-in-law, mukuwasha.
But our culture is in transition, as it should, because it is not static. As we become more westernised, that space between mother-in-law and son-in-law is becoming very narrow. In town, they watch the same television, sit at the same table and even use (separately) the same shower and toilet.
Back in the village, the individual spaces were clear and easy to negotiate. In town and at holiday resorts, the traditional spaces between mother -in-law and son-in-law are difficult to maintain. But we must find ways to balance the spaces of respect reserved between mother-in-law and son-in-law. Vanyarikani.
- Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.