David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
A quartet known as The Brothers Four recorded a memorable version of the song “Where have all the flowers gone?” Backed by simple guitars and a double bass, the vocals are clear and distinctive in a way that makes their lament even more evocative. The Brothers Four also did an environmental hit song called “Green Fields”, whose words go something like this:
Once there were green fields kissed by the sun
Once there were valleys where
rivers used to run
Once there were blue skies with white clouds high above
Once they were part of a
We were the lovers who strolled through green fields
The imagery in this stanza is sad and forlorn and speaks of profound, but unwelcome changes. It reads like a typical 21st century story of deforestation and desertification. The green fields are gone and all that is left is the dust bowls and vast yawning gaps of nothingness. Where the sun once kissed the green fields it now burns the earth almost oven hot. You dare not step out without shoes or sandals because if you did you would most certainly be looking for trouble.
If you are in Kenya, drive out to a place called View Point just outside Limuru, the little town on the highway to Lake Victoria and Uganda in the distance. Limuru is fascinating because in the evenings you can go to the pubs and drink Miti, a traditional brew invented by a Kenyan herbalist who actually has a patent to it. Miti is an intoxicant as well as a medicine. Well, that is the claim from its brewers. Each drinking place that sells Miti displays a certificate on the wall.
The certificate assures drinkers that the brew is properly calibrated and has been clinically tested for toxins. In simple English you are told by the certificate that it is absolutely safe to drink Miti. These are the things I remember about Kenya and Limuru: the makeshift tea kiosks by the roadside and the friendly citizens out on a walk in the fresh mountain air or just wanting to have tea by the roadside.
One evening I was feeling adventurous and decided to try the fabled herbal beer. It had a tangy and exotic herbal taste. Soon it had me chatting animatedly with other guzzlers in this seedy little place where a man promised to introduce me to Fadhili Williams, the composer of Malaika, one of Africa’s greatest and most enduring melodies.
I think my new-found friend and I were tottering on the brink of sleep and inebriation, completely felled by the herbal brew and the sheer exhaustion of our imbibing. Sometimes tongues are looser, especially when sleep is calling. In between eager gulps from the frothy bottles, I heard the secrets of Kenyan beer. One being that to get the best out of a Kenyan beer, always drink it at room temperature.
“My friend,” said my grateful companion groggily, “As soon as you ask for a cold beer everyone knows you’re from Zimbabwe. Zambians don’t care for such things. They say, a beer is a beer. If you want a lion go to the bush.” I was the one buying.
Days later, an incident came to me in my reminiscing. Its trigger was my Miti-drinking episode. Years back, a group of adventurous boys at boarding school tried their hand at contraband beer. Neither the boarding master nor the headmaster had any idea what was going on.
The incident was a top-notch secret. The boys boiled the smelly, toxic leaves of a hardy plant that no animal could graze on. In the days before the advent of cement floors, women in the countryside cleaned and polished their hardened earthen floors with the plant’s crushed leaves.
Although the smell was strong and nauseating, the clean air deodorised it. Thirsty rural beer-drinkers desperate for a swig sometimes resort to illicit brews such the zavazava brew. The leaves and roots are boiled about five times, the discoloured water being thrown out until a clear liquid remains. If taken before all the processes are done the taste is said to be harsh and uninviting.
Once the illicit brewers are satisfied that what they have is drinkable, the brew is allowed to cool and settle. This done, merry consumption begins. On this particular occasion the boys were too thirsty and impatient to allow for what had to be done to be done. They had the brew prematurely and were soon transported to worlds unknown. Right through the weekend to about the end of day on Monday one of the boys was sick to the bone and had trouble with his eyes. He couldn’t focus properly or coordinate himself. The disorientation was absolute; confusion reigned in his head even as the physical pain tortured his body. To all intents and purposes he was in a state of restricted animation. But boys will be boys. The secret was kept intact until years after the incident. Some memories are made of such incidents.
Standing at the edge of View Point and looking down into the valley below you see the beginnings of the wondrous East African Rift Valley. In this place the earth and sky seem to converse.
There is just so much beauty everywhere that as you stand there and after you have bought your Kalenjin souvenirs you wish you could stay there forever and just enjoy this wondrous natural beauty that threatens to floor you and reduce you to a whimpering idiot stunned by a sight that even angels will stop to gaze at. There is always a kind of heavenly mist in this place. I have sometimes thought that I could hear the hooves of wildebeest stampeding across the grasslands or leaping blindly into flood waters. After your ravishing experience at View Point you could go to the roadside vendors and help yourself to the special Limuru maize that they proudly announce takes six months to mature and is harvested in winter. In that case you had better visit there when it’s winter. That way you will be able to taste the roadside tea made from tea from Kenya’s highlands.
Have you ever noticed how when you visit a place of real significance the place seems to take on almost visible personality of its own? It’s as if the place has a physical presence and can talk to you. You hear the voices of a young Ngugi wa Mirii growing and developing community-based theatre among the villages in the outer environs of Limuru. This is the place that sired Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of Africa’s literary icons and most lucid political analysts.
Conservationists in Kenya and everywhere must insist on the sanctity of the environment. Only that way can we avoid the tragedy that must come if people in Africa continue to allow the environment to be depleted through deforestation and siltation whose logical consequence in both cases is desertification. There are numerous places along Zimbabwe’s roads and motorways where a signpost announces a river, but when you get there all you see is a bridge over a dry river bed. And I can think of places out in the communal areas that had springs that have since dried up. Walking around the bush in those far-off days you knew exactly where to find water. Willy-nilly, I find myself singing along with The Brothers Four: Once there were valleys where rivers used to run. This is a true enough picture. There were ponds we used to swim or fish in. Now only the deep gullies remain except where siltation has had a say in the way things have panned out. Will there come a time when someone’s child will ask what a river is? Or are going to march to a dirge lamenting the dying of our world and the depletion of our natural resources? When I go walkabout out in the country I feel the emptiness all round. There are empty huts and fallow fields everywhere and as always The Brothers Four serenade me with the words:
Green fields are gone now, parched by the sun
Gone from the valleys where rivers used to run
Gone with the cold wind that swept into my heart
Gone with the lovers who let their dreams depart
Where are the green fields that we used to roam?
Is anybody listening out there? Does anybody care? Or are we all saying, “I’m all right Jack”? There will be a comeuppance and hell to pay one day if people continue to be so uncaring, inflicting wounds, scarring the world and then turning round to ask: Where have all the flowers gone? As the song says, flowers get picked some day and those who pick the flowers eventually move on to marriage, to soldiering and to the graveyards in solemn caskets. And the cycle of flowers goes on.
David Mungoshi is a writer, social commentator, retired teacher and editor.