Our challenges in keeping time
Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
Last week, people in our whole district of Chikomba East sat for hours waiting to vote in the just-ended primary elections.
It was a long wait. I waited too, along with my cousin Piri and Reuben. Most of the time, I sat in the car while Piri and Reuben spoke to various people.
“Our people are very patient,” said Reuben.
“We Africans have a bad reputation for not keeping time because we are so patient. But this kind of patience does not help us adhere to time in the modern world. The business world requires us to keep time.”
The idea of keeping time has always been a problem for me. Over the years, I have been forced to improve my adherence to time. This poor attention to time has a lot to do with my past life.
When we were growing up in the village, we did not worry or think about time.
We did not have a clock. The sun told us what to do. In those days, my mother used to say that the sun should never rise before we do.
Everything we did was decided by the seasons. The cicadas sang to tell us that rain was imminent. When the rains were late my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa and the elders summoned spirit mediums and they paid libations around the muchakata tree to ask the ancestors for rain.
In November the rains came. We danced and sang: “Mvura ngainaye tidye mapudzi – Let it rain, so can eat pumpkins.”
At night we heard frogs singing and 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 Save River flowed, taking away all the dry debris and dust to the Indian Ocean. Our cows grew fatter.
The women in our compound and in other villages shared and exchanged groundnut and pumpkin seeds. Before sunrise, we ploughed the fields and sowed maize, sorghum and groundnuts. We raced against planting time.
Soon after a certain type of rain, Mbuya said the wild mushrooms would come out. And they did.
She led a group of women to the hills very early in the morning. When the sun was right above our heads, they arrived back with baskets full of mushrooms.
Mbuya carefully examined the mushrooms and threw away all the poisonous ones. My mother then boiled and salted the rest of the mushrooms and sun dried them at the granite rocks.
When all the weeding was over, we waited for some weeks for the harvest time to begin.
We knew the time to pull the groundnuts and the length of time it would take to dry them. We cut the red sorghum – zviyo, mapfunde and mhunga and laid it out to dry in the sun on the flat granite rocks. Everything obeyed the natural rhythm of time and got dry at its own pace.
While my older brothers and sisters did the harvesting, my job was to guard the crops from monkeys, goats, baboons and birds at the granite rocks.
I was often alone. I was not lonely. Time just moved along slowly while I sat under the shade of a tree for hours on end. There were no books to read.
When I was alone, I listened to birds singing and tried to identify the type of bird from its song. But, sometimes I just lay on my back and watched eagles flying above as they searched for unsuspecting prey with their sharp cruel eyes.
I sang to myself, talked to the ants, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers and other insects to avoid falling asleep.
Certain sounds of the day would tell me that it was time to gather the grain and go home.
Some clouds could tell me that it will rain before midday and other clouds will show that they are not carrying rain at all, but would do so by late evening.
Sometimes I was joined by my sisters Charity and Paida.
We drew figures in the sand, made bracelets from the bark of a tree and wove small worthless baskets.
We watched ants building their castles and talked to a snail taking forever to climb a rock while leaving a slimy trail behind it.
When the harvest was over and our granaries were full, my mother and all the women in the compound began the process of beer brewing.
First, they soaked the rapoko in water for three days.
When the germination started, they dried the rapoko on the flat rocks until all the moisture was gone. Then they brewed the beer for seven days.
Each stage of beer brewing was determined by time. A certain period of time told them that the beer or mhanga was now ready for mixing with water and mealie meal porridge.
They cooled it down for some hours. The beer was strong and intoxicating.
Later on in the dry season, the elders performed kurova guva – the ceremony to reconcile the spirit of the dead with the living. They brewed plenty of beer, killed a beast and all night they danced, played the drum and mbira.
At dawn, they formed a single file to the grave, varoora carrying beer pots on their heads. They poured it on the grave, ululated, clapped and called upon the spirit of the dead to cease wandering in the bush and come home to guide and protect the living.
The ancestor knew the time to return to the people as guardian spirit.
When the moon was full, we followed the sound of the drum and danced until dawn. We played many games. During the time when the moon was dead and the night was so dark that you could not see your hand, Mbuya VaMandirowesa told us stories about the time when animals could talk.
When November, the sacred month of the goat arrived, no ceremonies could take place. Getting married or performing any rituals would anger the ancestors.
The women shelled nuts and made peanut butter. Men thatched the huts and poured manure on the fields in preparations for the rains.
Everything around us moved at a pace determined by the seasons. But, there were times when we were forced to race against time.
If the rains were coming and we were still out in the valley herding cattle, we ran home to beat the rains. We rushed to cross the river before it flooded.
At school, the teachers introduced the idea of keeping time. Even though we did not have clocks at home, we learnt to arrive at assembly on time.
Failing to do so incurred a beating with a stick from the headmaster.
One day my father came home from Kwenda Mission with the village’s first clock.
He said we should learn to obey time and hurry to keep up with the white man because he knew so much about time and its importance to business.
“Do not listen to anyone telling you that there is no hurry in Africa,” my father said.
He hung the clock on the wall of our hut and told us to watch it. And obey it.
“Stop gazing at the sun, let the clock tell you when to get up, when to fetch water and when to plough the field,” he said.
That did not work. The clock was eaten by rats and it died. We went back to looking at the sun as before.
At Kwenda Boarding School, everything was done according to time.
No more staring at the sun to tell us what to do. The bell rang at 6am. Communal showers at 6:15. Everything was done in quarterly or hourly intervals.
Time was forcing us to change our cultural habits.
Over the years and through experience, we have learnt to keep time when doing business. But, in our social lives, we still have a long way to go in learning to keep time.
In today’s fast moving world, everything is measured by the progress of the clock.
We have wrist watches, clocks in the car, on the radio, on television, on phones, computers and on everything.
In the modern world, time tells us what to do. But down here in the village, we hardly look at the clock. But we may not continue to do this for long, because time is moving and it will force us to adjust to the rhythms of change.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.