UNDER THE EAVES with Igomombe
Before going very far, let me introduce myself. I came into this world some day in the month of Kubvumbi – the just-ended month of tail showers. Many troubled years later, it would also become the month of our Independence which came exactly two weeks after the day commemorating my birthday.
As I will soon show, the year of my birth should not bother you. It did not, and has never quite mattered. Suffice to say it was some year of our Lord, if that means anything to you. We live in an age of agnostic cynicism, don’t we?
Tough by lip, by whip
I pushed out of her womb one morning somewhere in the outback of settler colonial Rhodesia, now Independent Zimbabwe. Thankfully I was born normal, and normally. Not through the mupimbira – the shin – as mother was wont to yell at her “accursed” brood. Not that we were any wilder than our age mates; only seven strong-willed boys who fought over just about everything, ornamented by one miserable girl who bore numerous marks of routine male bullying. It toughened her though, what with such a riotous home. So, too, was the woman we called mother; she had to be: tough by lip, tough by whip.
A son of a troubled world
And the outward – the wider world – matched this elephantine toughness. My coming was overshadowed, nay blighted, by UDI – the Unilateral Declaration of Independence – by which settler politics swung to militant, break-away racism. It came three years later, built on a raft of repressive laws started by the liberal Todd, intensified by Whitehead, and hesitantly implemented by the wimpy Winston Field, himself a foil to the tough Ian Douglas Smith and his Rhodesia Front gang.
A year later, the Sinoia Battle would take place: decidedly tragic yet a necessary bloody inspiration on the long armed struggle to follow. By 1972, Rhodesia was at war: notably Altena Farm attack by John Pedzisa group who still lives; then the haunting face of death in Centenary in the form of two comrades, Kid Marongorongo (read Mawrong-wrong) and Solomon Ngoni.
I had just completed my fifth grade when the two were gunned down in a war that still seemed so remote, so abstract. Three years later, by 1976, the war had reached home. Gentle reader, I have given you good enough clue to the real year of my birth. And as you shall soon see, I use “real” advisedly.
Where fate beckoned
My official birth record was a family conspiracy against the racist institution of colonial records. The family conspired to bring forward my year of birth by a year. It made me younger, just in case I needed to. A key colonial bottleneck for the African child was passing the seventh grade. And doing so within the acceptable age bracket whose cut-off point was 14. Many choked and “died” at that stage, winding up urchins or waifs in colonial cities and towns. They swelled the vast pool of cheap African labour, as was intended under the settler colonial political economy. Farm labourers, garden “boys” or worse. A harsh fate beckoned.
Second, third bite at the cherry
To cope, families found artful ways of beating the system, the major of which was to make their children officially a little “younger”, so they could enjoy a second or third bite at the seventh grade “cherry”, all within acceptable “age”. Parents lived in perpetual fear of that dead end for their children, made deadlier by the age limit by which nature helped Rhodesia fortify this impassable bottleneck.
It paid little to be truthful about your year of birth, let alone to want to linearly grow. You had to be stunted, hardened, at the very least by official records. The year “lost” could very well be a fate gained. To this day, most of my generation carry this “taint” of under-age, which is why birthdays have never meant much to us.
And it was a domino. Through this natal cheating, you got sucked deeper and deeper into more recorded lies: your baptism certificate; your school result slips and certificates; your chitikinyani (juvenile certificate); your chitupa or registration certificate; your employment record; and if criminally disposed, your crime docket.
With a stroke of good luck, your driver’s licence too. On an ailing day, your hospital card. Then finally on your makeshift tombstone when you left this world for one the priest avowedly claims is a happier one beyond. The tombstone was the final lie-text, cryptically immortalised for progeny and posterity: John Gomba: D.O.B. 4/4/63. Died-/-/–. You became a documented, innocent fraud, from the record office to the tombstone!
Where I emitted my first cry
My “cradle” and “cot” was a small, sooty, pole-and-dagga “kicheni” with a white chevron design around its humped waist. The belt-like hump came from mud-embedded mbariro – thin sets of split tender logs that held pole “uprights” that stood the wall of our hut. Embedded because the whole wall would be plastered by mud.
The result was a mud-and-sooty roofed structure so remarkably versatile functionally. Foremost, it was the family maternity ward. Most of us emitted our first cry from within circular wall only broken by a rough doorway and two opposite chinks made out of burnt bricks built into the main wall to form two small triangles. If the idea was ventilation, then the effort was defeated both by size and height. The structure was an unrelieved choking cauldron.
Things inspired by brooding dark
My cradle was also the food factory, the hearth, the lounge, the set for early evening folktales. Of course it was the bedroom where my six siblings and I huddled together until each successive night wore out into yet another day. And because many of us never had strong bladders, the hut – specifically its daubed rough floor – doubled up as our toilet, quite often right through to teenager-hood. Here is why.
My generation feared “evils” the lurked in the eerie, brooding dark of the night. Including even when the moon shone. The dreaded “evil” usually took a female human form: by way of an extremely light-skinned wrinkled hag with jutting, broken and discoloured teeth who lived a few houses down the village. Wherever she went or was seen, she carried an evil reputation of not “sleeping” at night, of not wearing out blankets.
Always prowling the night for sorcery, her blankets thus never grew “old”. Typically, we imaged her mounting a mottled hyena, itself the proverbial beast for sorcery. And yarns about her abounded: had she not “eaten” Zekia’s son that other year when the rains failed? Did she not carry a retributive nail on her fontanelle, one hammered into her head when caught by Muzapu’s spell (a renowned witchdoctor)? Did she ever smile? Would she not ominously say “Heyani!” when upset?
And would the cause of her upset see the next season? No, she never meant well, claimed the whole village in a whisper. It terrified us terribly. No one ate from her pot. Her children were never molested, for fear of terrifying prospects. So night brooded with evil spirits, which is why it was safer to loosen bowels where we slept!
Plugging your bladder
Of course these nocturnal mishaps always exacted a painful price the morning after. Your already “wet” misery would be compounded by frenzied maternal whiplashes. Usually, the lashes would be administered amidst a deluge of invectives which your bawling self neither heard nor were meant to hear. Already worsted, you would then be made to eat raw some hideous species of a locust – tutwa – which, so went the village lore, would plug your dundira – plug your loose bladder. Of course it never did.
These mishaps apart, the sooty cradle gave me a strong chest and nose, which is why, unlike my born-in-town issue, I never suffer from those silly allergies that suggest a fragile frame. Of course it took quite a long while into adulthood to shake off the sooty scent from my habitat. It dogged me right into high school, especially if one approached me from behind.
Imagine a chain smoker, and then you have an idea of the “airs” that attended my person! Until of course I discovered the wonders of the white man’s more fragrant “soot” which I wear with a vengeance every morning before I go to work, all to smell sweet in polite company. It’s called compensation. How far I have evolved!
Cobs strung along the mususu beam
Each morning as I gradually worked myself out of my slumber, the first thing to catch my notice would be sooty cobs strung along a mususu beam which, orange-like, neatly split my mother’s rondavel into two even halves. My late father had the good sense to prefer poles from the mususu tree for beaming the family hut: it never succumbed to weevils and termites. Equally, it never sagged, being always dutifully brittle and straight, even when freshly cut. That made it eminently suited to its often heavy and variegated chores.
Watching the meat wash-line
On a good day the beam would be turned into a mutariko – meat wash-line on which was hung “midzonga yenyama” – long stripes of lean meat hung out to be smoked and dried for long, family eating days ahead. In those Rhodesian days, protein deficiencies were common to most African families, made more common by what historians have mistakenly termed the African “cattle complex”.
Cattle complex was a falsely invented notion to explain away many African livestock owners’ seeming reluctance to sell their livestock at the “marikete”, the cattle market. These “eminent” white historians never accepted that colonial cattle markets were designed to impoverish African livestock owners by offering cheap prices for rural livestock. Or that the overwhelming vicissitudes under colonial life made livestock a veritable African bank and insurance, which is why animals could not be so lightly disposed of, let alone killed for the pot.
The philosophy was to wait for a rainy day, and not to obey the tongue which never satiates or stop craving for sweet things. So animals were kept, none slaughtered for the pot. Rather, they would “mercifully” die for the pot – usually from old age, illness, or from some other mishap we all looked forward to. Hardly the way to taste prime beef!
Meat for long eating days ahead
On an average day and for longer, the mususu beam would be burdened by tightly packed stretch of soot-covered, pendant cobs of “hikirikingi” – a robust open-pollination seed variety still un-thrashed -hung downward by their by-now brittle husks, and left out to dry. I still marvel at the science behind both chores. With no fridges and of course with high temperatures and abundant flies – green and fat – lean meat soon got bad.
To speed up its preservative decay, my mother would cut up huge chunks of it into thin stripes, then “brew” them using big buckets ordinarily meant to “cook” the potent home brew. Once summarily boiled and heavily salted nemunyu wemabwe – unground salt – the stripes would then be randomly hung on the meat wash-line and left to dry.
Foul maggots for fowls
Between the meat’s phases of freshness and dryness lay a decaying interregnum during which
these stripes would charitably play host to big maggots which I grew to accept as a natural part of family diet. Gorged and bloated, the majority of these maggots would fall off on their own, most probably from own sheer oily weight. Fall into the hearth, in which case the dying fire would do the rest, of course to occasional pops and flares.
Or fall on the floor under and along the beam that carried family meat, in which case these lazy maggots would need to be swept into one wiggling heap, before being tossed out into the home yard for hens to happily peck. This chore of sweeping away the maggots and serving them to rummaging fowls was reserved for Rozi, my ill-fated sister. And she executed the chore nonchalantly, seemingly unaffected by the foul smell from these bloated vermin. Uhh, to be born a girl-child!
Drowning all concerns
The few maggots that providentially remained battened on prized stripes of family meat would morph into hairy creatures that then died and dried with the meat. These would become part and parcel of family protein, comfortably met between happy jaws at sumptuous family dinner. Did it matter?
Dinner was usually partaken of behind the dim flicker of dying embers. You saw nothing offensive, ate everything with relish and a bit of facial flourish. Alternatively, my creative mother would stew the dried meat in thick peanut butter, in which case all “concerns” would drown and meld into a rich brown of burnt peanuts so smoothly ground. We never allowed these maggots – unseen in the dark or sunk into thick soup anyway – to upset the gastronomic equilibrium. Instead we grew into lusty teenagers roundly shunned by any ailments; then into adorable young men deserving of a second glance from best village beauties. How so except from good, healthy eating!
Tasty, boiled maize kernels
As for the maize cobs, well, their fate was less greasy. Quietly, they would dry up on their sooty perch, quite free from weevils thus making them good seed for the season to come. Fantastic science yekuwuchika mbeu! Their less fortunate second cousins called mafushe – boiled and then dried cobs – would share the perch but leave it much sooner for the pot, to give the eager family a tasty variety of mungai (re-boiled maize kernels).
Soot-less marriages of today
The third sight from my slumber would be the soot itself. Barring restless rats, the pendant soot would hang thick, dark and long. So thick that it could even support the weight of rats as they scurried to safety in nether ends of the cone-shaped thatched roof. As I grew into chikomana chakanga choziva – a little “man” who now knew – these pendant locks of soot became a rich text so full or metaphors. Metaphors on the wellness of my mother’s marriage; real thermometers of home stability and security. Like me, my father was well known for his fiery temper which often resolved itself into a quick hand. And each time he threatened to send my mother packing, she would languidly point up the roof, and then challenge him to count from the long locks of soot the many “moons” they had been together in wedlock. Or how many lit fires it took to grow such long locks.
“That’s what you men do when your stomachs are full,” she would add, cutting my father to the quick. Had he no shame, such an old man to be overheard by his grown-up children making such “words”? Invariably this ended the argument, forcing squawking father to disappear in the direction of the cattle pen, soundly beaten. Nowadays I wonder what arguments are raised to quieten brawling husbands in those soot-less marriages!
A morgue and send-off chapel
Of course the last function of my cradle was a sad one: a morgue. To date I have lost two blood-brothers, one of whom was mourned in the home. The other brother just vanished, where to, we don’t know to this day. My father is long lost, as is also my mother. On three occasions, therefore, I have seen my happy cradle transform into a sob-and-dirge-filled morgue, and send-off chapel.
Old women – usually closely related to the dear departed – bare-floor seated and distraught, eyes either tearfully red, or winking from denied sleep, would play vigil to a white lace-draped coffin wedged between the sitting bench usually starting from one end of the door, stretching inwardly round and along the hut wall, and the utensils bench arcing at the back along the wall, earthenware delicately piled above it. Both platforms are made from compacted, then smoothed, ebony-polished earth got from a mature anthill.
In the middle of the grieving harridans would be dying embers, weakly supported by a slow burning log that never glows, as if emblematising a dear life snuffed out. Outside and around the home would be many fireplaces, each distinguished by its own unique glow or roar, in combination representing a mosaic of moods among the bereaved, the grieving and those from nearby who will have come to “cry” with “those left behind”. As if living family members ever meant to accompany the dear departed!
Under the eaves
Watched from the outside, my cradle was an uneven pole-and-dagga wall helmeted by a cone roof progressively soot-burnished. Originally well-thatched, it now showed random chinks of uneven sizes and bulging tufts of rat nests. Projecting a metre or so beyond the standing wall is the circular eaves beneath which is a shade that stubbornly opposes spearing rays delivering the searing sun. On a sultry day, we all sat under it, half-awake from noontime bodily fullness. Or simply shelling nuts. Father would hog his own eaves – usually of the granary – smoothing his newly chiselled axe handle with an adze. Or we would be simply resting our backs ahead of more chores, waiting for the sun to tilt for a cooler breeze. The eaves was thus an escape from the blazing sun, indeed a source of respite and renewal.
Curing an itch
Not only for humans. But also for domestic animals, principally goats, sheep and dogs. The first two would come not just for the shade; they would cure deep bodily itches by rubbing against the rough mud walls and jutting stubs of otherwise embedded poles that stood and supported the wall.
Looking up the berevere – the eaves – one would notice many odds and ends tucked into the thatch and held by mbariro, the “ribs” of the roof. Small grains-studded cuttings of sorghum. Or cuttings of sweet cane and other millets, all stocked in readiness for the next season. The eaves are a makeshift granary, indeed a seedy home for future seasons or life. Or see a row of hoes, axes and adzes tucked into the ribs of the roof for the next weeding season. A makeshift storeroom for implements that turned the soil for food and plenty.
Beware of the bull wasp
But beyond all of these, the eaves also kept other guests, most notably winged ones who hung nestled by the jutting stubs of roof trusses. Under the eaves. Thin-waisted but ebony and bulbous on either ends, these winged creatures are usually peaceably settled, their wings seemingly clipped along their bodies to suggest anything but hostility or hot temper. On a good, quiet day, they clustered around their whitish, honeycombed home, ever looking sedate, even drowsy and unmoved, seemingly completely unconcerned about life and activity beneath the eaves.
But let anything disturb them or their nest, and all hell breaks loose. In no time their wings come alive, shivering to a frenzy, all in readiness for stinging, swelling attacks that leave the victim’s head splitting. We all grew warned against disturbing the bull hornet usually nestled under the eaves. You take liberties with this bull wasp – igomombe – the grief is sharp and unremitting. All under the homely eaves!
Unpacking Donne’s conceit
Gentle reader, this is a rather elaborate and convoluted resume for this column which, together, we launch today. If you are a student of literature, you readily relate this to a stylistic feature which Metaphysical poets led by one John Donne called “conceit”. Simply, this was an extended or elaborate metaphor, fully drawn to convey an otherwise obscure thought. It worked by comparing dissimilarities. The time and detail spent in drawing the village hut, especially its eaves, tells you something is afoot.
It has been a lot more than merely romancing or assuaged my nostalgia. I have tried to build a working trope which I shall deploy in subsequent instalments, and whose expressive powers become apparent in the intervening weeks, months, possibly years, as we jointly nurse this column to full thought-adulthood. Mine is to act by writing provocatively; yours is to react by reading and commenting vigorously. That way, we grow the column jointly, mate and seed each other in thought, perspective and style.
Where a blow falls un-mercifully
Make no mistake, the hand behind it is a bold one, especially when it comes to ideas. No shirking; no ground which angels leave untrodden. Or in local parlance, the knobkerrie shall fall unmercifully, whether or not the thieving baboon holds its face in contrition. That is when the occasion calls for hard balls.
But when all is well, the column shall serenade you as you lie restfully beneath the cooling eaves. Or where an itch pinches those nether regions your finger can’t reach, the column will helpfully scratch, and then smoothly spread quietening balm. I shall strive to ensure there is much to be got by loyally following the column, including serving you with vintage thoughts which come with extensive, well-canvassed positions and presentations supported by extensive, adventitious reading and research.
Consider this a reaction, if my raillery if you want, against an age now given to think by its fingers. A generation so despairing un-reading, yet so haughtily opinionated and reductively simplistic in thought and opinion. An age with an attitude, and therefore rude and un-enlightened by finer, nuanced thinking. I blame it on this tweeting business which regale expletives above thought and nuances; which require complex thoughts to reduce to characters that barely cover a fraction of the alphabet.
It’s as if the rest of the letters of the alphabet don’t matter, are superfluous. An age which vainly thinks it can encompass reality – change it even – through sparsely finite characters that fit the requirements and conventions of the Twitter. An age whose thought lobes dwindle by the day, countermanded by untaught mouths which widen and get louder inversely. Alexander Pope never had kind words for such an age: that of the dunciad. Not even Jonathan Swift who hated the whole of humanity, while loving Peter, John and James!
We just have to go back to big book – to reading – if this age has to get re-educated. Unbeknown to us – we so wont to holding the wrong end of every technological fad – the civilisation that authored Twitter is back to eating big book. To reading and hiding all knowledge in book. Never on paedophillic digital platforms which seduce and de-flower our kids in innocent tenderness. We have to retrace. Yes, to sit contemplatively under the eaves, so once more we see the world in a grain of sand. Under the eaves: primum mobile!