Art by Roya Farassat
It was a six-hour drive to the city of Bulawayo from the place where the soldiers forced us into their truck at the Phezulu Mountains. We made the journey mostly in silence broken by the steady growl of the truck engine. We were all sitting on the floor in the open back of the cab, Mother with little Gift sleeping on her lap, Auntie MaJamela, and me.
The six red-bereted soldiers sat three on either side of us on the benches lining the sides, their AK-47s held between their knees, and some with their heads lolling back in half sleep, if they were not being jolted by the bumpy road.
I was still in shock. My mind felt numb. I just couldn’t comprehend the events of the past week, starting from the day when my friends and I had been stopped by the soldiers on our way from school. The soldiers had taken them away in their truck, fourteen-year-old girls stripped naked, leaving me alone on the road when they’d heard that I speak Shona. The flight with Mother and the others to the Phezulu Mountains that had followed, and what had happened there when the soldiers finally caught up with us—it was just too much.
All the homesteads in the villages that we passed by along the road were either rubble or charred shells, with some still sending trails of smoke to the sunblasted sky as if in plea to God. I guessed this was a repeat of what had happened in our village as well, or was still ongoing. People incinerated inside their huts, and the lucky ones who had survived the onslaught still fleeing in terror all over the countryside. Further on along the journey, I saw some soldiers herding a group of women deeper into the bush, beating them with sticks, the women trying to block the blows with their hands. I didn’t even want to guess what was going to happen to them or think about what had happened to my dear school friends, Belinda, Nobuhle, and Sithabile, wherever they might be.
This was still all confusing to me. Although the schoolteachers from my high school whom we’d been hiding with in the cave at the Phezulu Mountains had tried to explain what this was all about, that the soldiers had been sent to kill Ndebele people because Prime Minister Mugabe was saying that there were dissidents among them, although this is what I’d been told, it still didn’t make sense to me. How could this approach be the best way to get rid of the dissidents, especially by a man like him who was said to be educated.
If a student steals money from a schoolteacher in a classroom and is so clever as to not get caught, does the schoolteacher then beat up everyone in that class?
Mother and I were sitting with Auntie between us. That’s what we call her, just Auntie. She’d fallen off the ledge at the Phezulu Mountains that morning when we’d been trying to escape from the soldiers. These soldiers who had managed to capture all of us and kill everybody else we had been with. The graze on the right side of her face she’d gotten from the fall had stopped bleeding, but the unfocused look was still there in her eyes. I hoped that she wasn’t in pain, and that she would soon recover, or at least say something, as ever since we’d started the journey she’d not uttered a single word, almost as if she was no longer capable of speaking.
We’d been traveling for some time when I noticed one of the soldiers doing something strange, the one sitting in front of me on the left side. Now and then he would wipe his eyes with the back of his hand—at first I’d thought that the dust swirling in the back of the truck from the untarred road was affecting him, but as we’d traveled on, I’d also noticed that he seemed to have a sad face under his red beret, almost as if he was about to cry. Then, now and then, he would reach inside his combat jacket and bring out a necklace with a small wooden cross pendant on it, which he would touch to his forehead, chest, and both shoulders like Roman Catholics do, and mutter something that I couldn’t hear. Much later, and with the Phezulu Mountains now a hazy outline on the horizon behind the truck, he took out a small Bible with a brown cover from his army bag, and opening a page, started reading silently from it.
I found this very strange too, him reading the Bible, for here were soldiers coming from murdering innocent villagers, some most probably caught herding cattle or drawing water from boreholes, and now one of them was trying to commune with God. I wondered if he was trying to ask for forgiveness for all of them, and if so, whether he would be heard or if God would just say fokofo.
As I was looking at him, he looked at me too and our eyes briefly met. There was a small scar on his right cheek, and his chin had a small beard. I thought he smiled, but then Gift woke up on Mother’s lap and started crying. Mother tried to rock him in her arms—he’s five months old—but when he didn’t stop crying, she offered him her breast. Right away, he started suckling. Seeing him do that, I became aware of my own deep hunger; we hadn’t eaten any proper food since we started fleeing—at the mountain we had been surviving on a soup of okra and figs, and once a single mouse that Auntie had been lucky to kill with a rock, which we had roasted on a fire.
“I’m hungry, Mother,” I whispered across Auntie to her.
“Be strong, Rudo,” she whispered back. “We will get something to eat when we get to Lobengula Township.” That was our destination, where Father rents a room, and where Captain Finish, the commander of the soldiers who was sitting in the cab beside the driver, had said we should go to before the truck had driven off from the Phezulu Mountains.
I was looking at Mother, about to reply, when I felt a touch on my shoulder. It was the soldier with the Bible. He was offering me a can of peaches that he’d opened. His face had relaxed into a smile, although the sadness was still there.
I looked at the can, then at Mother.
“Take it,” she said. “And say thank you.”
I took the can with both hands. I thanked him, in Shona. “Maita henyu.”
He nodded at me, then resumed reading his Bible.
Mother also thanked him. Again he nodded his head, but without looking at us, almost like he was embarrassed.
Before eating the peaches, I offered the open can to Auntie, meaning to share them with her and Mother, but she just stared ahead, making no acknowledgement that she was seeing it.
“We’ll have to feed her,” Mother said. She scooped some of the peaches from the can with her fingers and placed them on Auntie’s lips, and Auntie opened her mouth and swallowed.
After we’d all finished eating the peaches that way, with Mother feeding Auntie, I felt a bit better, although the hunger was still there but not as bad as before. And since we were now approaching the city, thankfully we would have something to eat once we got to where Father lived as Mother had said, even if he wouldn’t be there to meet us.
Although we were exposed to the hot sun in the back of the truck, I found myself dozing now and then, my mind wandering again. I thought of my school where I was doing Form Two—I was fourteen years old—and wondering how I would find a place in the city to continue with my education, because I didn’t think we would be returning to our village anytime soon after what we’d seen happen there.
After passing through several roadblocks manned by more soldiers on the country road, where travelers were either searched or beaten up, the truck finally entered Bulawayo. As if in welcome, a helicopter thundered past above us in the cloudless sky, an amplified voice booming down from it in Ndebele: “You are surrounded by soldiers and the police, and you are instructed to stay at your home if you’re not going to work. If you are going anywhere you are instructed to always carry your national identification card, or you will be arrested.”
I watched it recede into the distance, remembering the other one we’d seen over Mbongolo Village as we’d fled through the bush. That helicopter had instructed everyone to go to Mbongolo Primary School, which we later learned from schoolteachers at the cave had been turned it into a prison where the soldiers were committing indescribable horrors.
The truck drove through the streets of the city. Mother and I would visit during the school holidays to be with Father, who worked and lived there, while we lived in the village. Usually when we visited, it was a time of great excitement for me, especially during the Christmas season. I liked seeing the decorated shop windows and the bustle of the pavements, not to mention the café where Father sometimes took us to eat hot chips and drink Coca-Cola.
But this day the pavements were almost deserted, only a few people walking about. They all seemed in a hurry as if afraid of something coming behind them. It felt like a Sunday—only then did it occur to me that I didn’t know what day it was. It had been a Tuesday when the soldiers had first stormed into our village, that I still remembered clearly, but the intervening days seemed to have fused together like in a bad dream.
“What day is it today, Mother?” I asked while the truck waited at a red traffic light.
She frowned. “I’ve forgotten. It must be Thursday, or Friday.”
“It’s Monday,” the soldier with the Bible said in accented Ndebele, catching me by surprise. I’d thought that all the soldiers only spoke Shona. He was looking at Mother. “Yesterday was Sunday.” He paused and looked at the cover of his Bible. Then he looked at Mother again. “Do you know where you’re going to, if I may ask?”
I still thought his politeness was unusual. The other soldiers in the truck sat silently as if sleeping. They seemed not to have noticed that we’d arrived in the city.
“Yes, we do,” Mother said. She was looking at the top of Gift’s head, almost as if she didn’t want her eyes to meet with those of the soldier. “We are going to Lobengula Township. That’s where my husband rents a room.”
“I remember now. You told the captain that before we started the journey,” the soldier said. “I think you will be dropped off somewhere so you can go and catch the bus to the township. We should be near there now.” He opened his Bible and started reading again.
The truck started moving once the traffic light turned green. I turned my head to look in through the back window of the cab to see where we were going—just in time to see a naked man with long dreadlocks in the middle of the road running towards our truck. It all happened so fast. The naked man was carrying a red brick—he threw it at the truck, and it hit the windscreen right in front of the head of Captain Finish. There was a screech of tires, and we all jolted forward. My forehead bumped against the window. A voice screamed, “Devils!”—it was the naked man, and his scream was followed by the loud crack of a gunshot, then a scream, and another gunshot again.
“Don’t look, Rudo!” Mother spoke to me.
But I’d already seen what had happened. Captain Finish had shot the naked man with a pistol through his open side window. Now soldiers leapt down from the back of our truck and surrounded the fallen body. Two of them were kicking the dead man. I looked away to see that the soldier who had given me the can of peaches had remained in the truck, although he was now standing up and watching the assault, his Bible held to his chest.
It didn’t take long for the angry soldiers to get back into the truck and for us to start moving again. Behind us, the naked man lay on the side of the road, a dark pool of blood forming around him. No signs of other people except for a white woman peeping out of the doorway of a shop.
We were dropped off on a street several blocks away from where the naked man had been shot. Before the army truck drove away, Captain Finish looked out of the passenger-side window over the top of his spectacles. The first time I saw him, I’d thought the spectacles made him look like a schoolteacher. I still found it hard to believe that he was capable of ordering the soldiers to do the horrible things they’d been doing in our village.
He spoke to Mother, in Shona, holding a notebook and a pen. “Please give me the address of the house where your husband lives.”
Mother, who now carried Gift tied on her back with a blanket and held Auntie MaJamela’s hand, told him.
The soldier wrote it down. “Just a piece of advice, Mamvura,” he said, putting first the notebook, and then the pen, into the breast pocket of his army jacket. A snuff tin appeared in his hand, and he opened it, pinched snuff, inhaled, ground the tip of his nose with the back on his hand, and looked at Mother again. “Be careful of the Ndebele people where you’re going to. Always remember that you’re Shona, and these aren’t your people.” He suppressed a sneeze, and rubbed his nose again.
Mother didn’t reply, only stared back at him as I was also doing.
“And just forget about your Ndebele husband too,” he continued. “If I were you, I’d take a bus today and go back home to Chisara village in Mashonaland East. That’s where you should be living.” He looked at me. “Just look at your daughter and the other child you’re carrying. Do you think they deserve to be in a place like this right now? And please don’t blame us on what you saw happening, as I know that’s what’s in your mind.”
Without waiting for a reply, he looked at the driver and nodded his head.
We stood at the side of the street, watching the truck drive away.
“That man they shot was right,” Mother said. “They’re all devils. But God is watching, and he never forgets.”
“They killed him,” I found myself saying.
“They did, Rudo. Remember that this is not the first time we have seen them doing this. I never thought in my life that people could be so evil, but those—” she pointed in the direction the army truck had gone. “They’ll all burn in hell one day, cross my heart. You can’t do things like this to other people and hope it will just end there. No, that’s impossible.”
Then Mother said we must all go to Egodini Bus Terminus to catch the bus to Lobengula Township. I wasn’t sure where exactly we were in the city center as I’d never been to this area before, but on the right side of the street was a big building with a sign that said PALACE HOTEL. Mother said we should cross over to the other side as the bus terminus was that way.
After crossing several other streets with Mother leading, we finally arrived at the bus terminus. Usually, vendors operated in the open space in front of its entrance, along with blind beggars at the entrances of the ticket bays, but today there wasn’t a single one of them there.
Mother paid the Zimbabwe Omnibus Company with a few coins that she had in her dress pocket. The bus that we took was near empty. All three of us shared a seat near the middle. I was sitting at the window, and as the bus moved along, I gazed outside, silently mouthing the names of the townships as they passed by, names that I knew—Makokoba, Nguboyenja, a roadblock with furious-looking red-bereted soldiers at Nguboyenja Bridge flyover, Matshobana, Mpopoma High School, another roadblock, Entumbane, Njube, and then Emakhandeni, where we got off at Emagetsini Bus Stop for the short walk to Lobengula Township.
The house where Father rented a room was at the corner of Nduna Street. Owned by Phiri and his wife MaNyirongo, who were originally from Malawi, and painted a light blue, it was the biggest in the street, having been expanded from two rooms, of all the houses in the township. The house had a wire fence around it unlike most of the other houses on the street, which had milkbush hedges around them, most left to grow wild, and a few here and there pruned.
As we walked in through the gate, we saw MaNyirongo. She was sitting in the veranda at the front of the house, busy knitting on something that looked like a jersey. As soon as she saw us, she stopped knitting and placed a hand over her bosom, mouth opened wide. I guess we must have looked a sight—barefoot, hair disheveled, dirty dresses, and with no luggage. Not exactly like people who are visiting the big city from the village. On normal occasions, we usually arrived wearing our best clothes.
“Mamvura!” she said, calling Mother’s name. Then to my surprise, she continued in Shona. “What happened to you?”
She was now standing up and had placed her knitting on a small table beside her chair. A tall woman with a big bosom, she was wearing a green dress decorated with little yellow sunflowers, and had on a khaki sun hat that was slanted to the side.
I’d never heard MaNyirongo speak in Shona before. That was what had surprised me. She had always spoken to us in Ndebele, which she spoke fluently, although she knew that my mother was Shona.
Mother didn’t immediately reply. We’d now come to a stop before the veranda. After a second or two, mother covered her face with her hands and started sobbing. I felt something almost break in my heart, and my eyes also became wet.
“What is happening?” MaNyirongo asked, still in Shona. “Why are you crying, Mamvura?”
Mother continued sobbing, and didn’t reply.
“Mamvura,” MaNyirongo called her name again. “What is happening?”
Mother uncovered her face. Her cheeks were covered in tears, which she wiped away with the collar of her dress. Then she spoke. “We need to rest first,” she said in Ndebele, and sniffed. “Did Rudo’s father arrive here?”
“That’s a strange question,” MaNyirongo said, still speaking in Shona. “He left about a week ago saying he was going to visit you in the village. Didn’t he arrive there?”
“He didn’t,” Mother replied, in Ndebele. Her voice was stronger now. “It’s a long story, MaNyirongo. After we have rested I will come and tell you what we have been through.”
“That doesn’t sound good at all,” MaNyirongo said. “Do you have the key to your room?”
“We don’t. But I know where Rudo’s father hides the spare one. We will go there now.”
MaNyirongo’s voice followed us as we moved around the side of the house headed for the back where Father’s room was, our feet crunching on the gravel covering the yard.
“There’s something very important I want to talk to you about too, Mamvura, but after you have unlocked the door. Please tell me when you have done that and I will come over to you.”
Two vegetable gardens took up the backyard, one big, the other small, both divided by a furrow. The big one belonged to MaNyirongo, while the smaller was Father’s. At the furthest end of the small one were two old bricks. Mother lifted one of the bricks and retrieved a key from underneath it.
Father’s room, or rather, our city home, wasn’t so big. It had a small bed, a wardrobe, a low cupboard under the single window with a paraffin primus stove on it, and a bench. On the far wall that separated it from the rest of the house was a calendar of the 1983 Castle Soccer Stars of the Year, the current year, and next to it a portrait of Dr. Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZAPU-PF who had lost in the 1980 elections. Prime Minister Mugabe’s party was said to be sponsoring the dissidents.
Mother led Auntie MaJamela to the bench and made her sit on it. Before I sat down, I took a cup from the top of the cupboard, then went to the water tap at the corner of the house in the backyard and drank some water. I filled the cup again, brought it back into the room, and placed it on the cupboard. Mother had unstrapped Gift from her back and placed him on the bed. My baby brother was asleep. I sat beside him, my stomach full of water, suddenly feeling very tired.
Mother was sitting on the bench beside Auntie MaJamela, now helping her drink the water from the cup. After that she went out to the water tap with the cup, came back with more water, then sat on the bench and had a drink too. At that moment a shadow filled the open doorway.
It was MaNyirongo, her knitting held in one hand.
“Is there anything wrong with MaJamela?” she asked, looking at her, speaking in Shona again. She knew Auntie, that she was Father’s sister, as she also sometimes visited him here whenever she came to the city on her own business.
“She fell off the side of a mountain this morning,” Mother replied, in Ndebele. I was now beginning to wonder why she was answering in Ndebele while MaNyirongo seemed to want to draw her into speaking in Shona. The reason was still not yet clear to me. “And ever since then she has been like this. Something terrible happened in our village, and we had to run away and hide in the mountains.” Mother stood up from the bench, and placing the cup on the cupboard, she sat beside me on the bed. “You can have a seat on the bench, MaNyirongo, and I will tell you everything that happened to us during the past week.”
“I will stand, thank you,” MaNyirongo replied, in Shona again. “But before you tell me, I wanted to tell you that there is a new rule in this house.”
“Yes?” Mother said, looking at her.
“As you have already seen what is happening outside in the streets,” MaNyirongo said, gesturing with her knitting behind her. “The soldiers are everywhere, even in the sky with a helicopter that you might have seen as you were coming here, and they’re not messing around. And because of that, things have changed now, and we don’t want to get into trouble with them. From now onwards we will be speaking in Shona only in this house, and that is why I’m doing so speaking to you right now. We expect you and your family to do likewise too, otherwise I’m sorry to say if you don’t, we will have to ask you to leave. I hope you and I are very clear on that?”
I was looking at Mother, who had yet to reply. I didn’t know what to think about this.
“Ndanzwa, MaNyirongo,” Mother said, in Shona this time, her face turned away from MaNyirongo.
“Please look at me in the eyes, Mamvura,” MaNyirongo said. “I’m serious about this, and I need you to promise me.”
Mother looked at her. “We will speak in Shona.” I know Mother, and I knew that wasn’t a full promise.
“Excellent,” MaNyirongo said, now smiling. “I knew I could rely on you on this one. And I’m not going to beat around the bush. You’re a full blooded Shona, and I know that your daughter Rudo can speak the language too even if her father is Ndebele and she has grown up in Matabeleland, so I don’t see any problem with that.” She pointed at Auntie with her knitting needles. “How about MaJamela? Can she speak Shona too?”
“Just a little bit that I taught her,” Mother said. “But she can’t hold a conversation.”
“When she recovers from what she’s suffering from,” MaNyirongo said, “please remind her of that, otherwise I’m afraid she’ll have to go. We really have to be careful about this.” Her voice dropped lower. “I’ve even heard some of my neighbors saying that the helicopter can hear what you’re saying from the sky, and that there are soldiers inside it recording everything.”
“Really?” Mother said.
“They’ve advanced technology,” MaNyirongo said. “Never underestimate this government, Mamvura. As you live in the rural areas, you don’t see what we see here in the city.”
“Okay,” Mother said.
“As we are agreed on this, you can now tell me what happened to you that made you arrive here looking almost like tramps.”
Mother explained to her what had happened in our village when the 5th Brigade soldiers arrived there the previous week, taking everyone by surprise. How they’d been burning homesteads and killing people, and how we’d managed to escape to the Phezulu Mountains only because the soldiers let us go after discovering that Mother and I could speak Shona, and they’d said they were only after Ndebele people. When she mentioned that, MaNyirongo broke in, her face lit up as if she’d made a sudden discovery.
“You see why I’m insisting that we must now all speak Shona in this house?”
Mother didn’t reply, but just shook her head.
“What about Rudo’s father?” MaNyirongo asked. “Do you know what happened to him?”
“The soldiers captured him when he got off the bus at our bus stop,” Mother explained. “They took him with them, and we don’t know where he is now.”
“That’s serious,” MaNyirongo said. “If they took him, then chances for his survival are zero. I’m sorry to say that.”
I felt my heart start when I heard her say this. Of course it had been on my mind all along, but hearing someone say it brought all my fear back.
“And if they kill him,” MaNyirongo went on, ‘then I already foresee a problem we are going to have with your stay here. And just to let you know, he paid the rent for this month, and I expect you to be able to do so next month too.”
A writer from Zimbabwe, Chris Mlalazi is the author of the three novels—Running With Mother (2012) which has been translated into German, Italian, and Spanish; They Are Coming (2014); and The Border Jumper (2019)—and the short story collection Dancing With Life: Tales From the Township (2008). He is the co-winner of the 2008 Oxfam/Novib PEN Award for Freedom of Expression for the play The Crocodile of Zambezi, and an alumni of the Caine Prize Workshop, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), the Feuchtwanger fellowship (USA), Nordik-Africa Institute (Sweden), Hannah-Ardent Scholarship (Germany), and Casa Refugio (Mexico City). He makes his home in Mexico City.
Roya Farassat is an Iranian-American visual artist living in New York. Her abstract and figurative work includes drawings, paintings, and sculptures. She received her BFA from Parsons School of Design and has been widely exhibited at galleries and museums in the United States and abroad. Farassat was nominated for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel Prize and the MOP Foundation Contemporary Art Prize, and awarded residencies from Henry Street Settlement and the Makor/Steinhardt Center. Her work has been reviewed by the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Brooklyn Rail, the Boston Globe, Artcritical, Art Radar, Hyperallergic, W Magazine, and Flaunt.