The Ride Home

Mail&Guardian, December 19 2008 to January 9 2009

By Sean Christie

Several people in a bus queue outside the Harare show grounds shouted at me as I passed. ‘You mustah pootee some presha in your tyahs.’ I looked down and saw they were right, the pressure in the back tyre was not equal to the 105 kilograms of its driver.

I came to a stop, heard a lion roar somewhere behind the show ground walls, and read ‘Agricultural Show’ from the banner above the turnstiles. For years my uncle, aunt and others from the Norton farming district had operated a dubious food stand there, once roundly poisoning all who bought their hamburgers. The Shows’ heydays were the sanctions-era seventies and the post-independence eighties. By the nineties it had become a bore and now, the agricultural sector having been all but demolished by the infamous land seizures, it is little more than a hollow propaganda exercise and a funfair—lion roars souring the milk of a few token dairy cows.

Pressure or no pressure I continued on the Bulawayo Road, dipping into the brown countryside where men in rags tilled beneath blank-faced highway billboards. The brutalist hulk of the Harare Sports Stadium lay to the right, always more of an independence statement than a facility, just like the Sheraton hotel a few kilometres back, and the National Heroes Acre memorial ahead on a hilltop to my left. All through my childhood the shrine’s 40m black obelisk topped with its Eternal Flame had sawed backwards and forwards through the msasa forest that enclosed the ridge, like a big middle finger flipped up, or so I fancied before I knew very much, to the whites who had chosen to stay on in the country after their defeat in the Rhodesian bush war.

I cycled to the gate with every intention of overthrowing the myth that the park was off limits to whites, only to recoil from the dark silence of the guardhouse. I’d wheeled the bike to the door and looked in to find a single soldier asleep on a chair. It was his presidential guard black beret, and not the Kalashnikov across his knees, that sent me hurrying back to the road. The headpiece marked him as a member of the elite force that helped to the assassinate Joshua Nkomo’s support base in Matabeleland in the volatile first years of independence. They have since been connected with the deaths of several of Mugabe’s political opponents, and indeed with the death of their own former boss, Brigadier General Ambrose Paul Gunda, who had an unfortunate meeting with a goods train in 2007.

In short order I stopped at two more left turns and wondered whether they would make worthwhile detours? The first was marked by a sign for Warren Hills Cemetery, where my grandmother’s ashes were interred in 1987. I’d visited once, and found the cemetery dry and prosaic, and couldn’t think that I would derive much benefit from a second look, especially after reading Peter Godwin’s When A Crocodile Eats The Sun. Godwin, perhaps the best known and certainly the most lyrical commentator on the Zimbabwe situation, describes a visit to the grave of his eldest sister, killed in a guerilla ambush during the Rhodesian bush war.

‘…the brass plaques which were bolted onto each mini-tomb… are missing. Every single one. The wall is just a long line of blank niches.’ Tombstones had been stolen for use in building, and maize was being cultivated in their place. Plus the site is being used as a lavatory for the next door township. The neglect causes Godwin to use to hurl the arum lilies he’d brought for the grave at, ‘two women who are bent over, hoeing their cemetery maize’.

No thanks.

The next left led away to Cold Comfort Farm, a site of infinitely sad historical irony. In the 1960’s and 70’s Cold Comfort was run as a multi-racial agricultural co-operative, the brainchild of Welsh missionary Guy Clutton-Brock and other Christian liberals, including the young nationalist Didymus Mutasa, who worked around the clock to turn the farm into what correspondent Trevor Grundy describes as ‘a first class agricultural training ground and a psychological liberation centre that was an early staging post on the long march from colonial oppression in Rhodesia to majority rule in Zimbabwe.’

Clutton-Brock’s name was so good with the new nationalist government that his ashes were taken to the Heroes Acre I’d recently left behind—the only white ashes in the shrine. Didymus Mutasa, the man Clutton-Brock himself esteemed for his ‘high integrity and Christian character’ went on to become speaker in parliament, and later both minister of national security and head of the secret police—positions which unlocked some latent store of vicious hatred in him, which through manifestations like the infamous Operation Murambatsvina [Operation Drive Out the Filth], has served to atomize every fibre of his legacy. Mutasa has a farm of his own now in the eastern highlands of the country, which he took from a white farmer and stocked with machinery stripped from other white farms.

I cycled as far as a eucalyptus glade where two men were weaving strips of reed into impressive high-backed chairs. ‘What happens here now?’ I asked, and they shrugged as if to say: ‘exactly what it looks like. We sit and make chairs.’

Thirst and leg pain shut down my thoughts shortly afterwards, and between the old snake park and the turn for Lake Chivero I was bugged only by the mysterious preponderance of candelabra trees, until I realised their latex-filled arms are probably the only things above head height that don’t burn in the stoves of the nearby townships.

When the next real strobe of cognition broke through I was crossing the railway outside of Norton, with the rim of the back wheel flush against the tarmac. The sun was dropping fast and I was still five kilometres from the Norton Country Club where I hoped to spend the night, so it was fortunate that Kevin from Kadoma pulled over the moment I stuck out my thumb.

‘You sure somebody here knows you’re coming,’ he asked when we reached the guardhouse, ‘because it isn’t really a country club anymore, it’s the property of CCC, the pig conglomerate.’ I lied with a nod of the head. ‘It’s okay,’ he shouted at a security guard who came at us with a ledger, ‘I’m just dropping his young man off and coming right out.’ He went coursing through the trench full of biocide before the guard could protest.

At first glance, aside from the guard house and its two proud flagpoles, it appeared little else had changed. Spray heads chattered away on green fairways, yellow pins were planted in manicured greens, and on the terrace beneath the clubhouse gable the old wrought iron tables and chairs were arranged like daisy-heads.

‘Doesn’t seem right, does it?’ said Kevin. ‘It’s an amazing story actually. Some of the last remaining farmers in the district pooled their resources and went into business with the country’s major pig producer. Together they bought the country club years back and keep the golf course going presumably because it keeps them in the good books of the local black businessmen, who can’t do without the sport. Not a single white member left these days.’

In the deserted parking lot behind the dark clubhouse Kevin again queried whether I was expected, and moments later went tearing back to the main road just ahead of a frantic column of dust.

After trying two locked doors the door to the East wing of the clubhouse creaked open. ‘Knock knock,’ I shouted before proceeding past the fleur-de-lis covered womens change room to the crèche, which was now taken up by an enormous double bed covered with a pink corduroy bed spread. A woman with the mottled skin of sixties-era sun love was changing in the en-suite bathroom, caught with her shirt over her head, and fortunately facing away. She joined me on the terrace lawn a minute after I’d fled the hallway, already smoking, and wearing a canary yellow satin top with epaulettes, carried off by black tracksuit bottoms. She hadn’t bothered with shoes.

‘I’m afraid there’s not much to do here so I sleep a lot of the time,’ she said, puffing on a cigarette. ‘You caught me having my afternoon nap. By the way, I’m Dianne Bolt.’

I explained that I was hoping to camp the night.

‘Oh you’re welcome, camp on the bowling green if you like. We had an international rally here last weekend and all the drivers camped there. They made such a bloody racket in their cars that two of CCC’s ostriches kicked the bucket. They ran round and round in opposite directions until the inevitable happened. Anyway, it’s quiet now and you’re welcome, I won’t even charge you.’

From one glance at the geological marvels that were the ends of Dianne’s toes I knew she had been a long time resident of the Norton district, which has a groundwater lime content so high it calcifies kettle elements, makes lathering-up in the shower impossible, and turns peach pink nails into vegetable ivory.

Her story came out of a Graham Greene novel I hadn’t yet read: Elderly woman’s husband dies and she resolves to return to economic disaster zone despite strong family opposition; takes job managing desolate club house on behalf of gigantic pig farm; survives on Pacific cigarettes and staff rations…

‘It’s either pork or condoms,’ she sighed. ‘That’s all you will find on the shelves of Spar and TM in town. Rows and rows of condoms.’

CCC had employed her ‘to keep an eye on the place’, which she had interpreted as a mandate to look into company malfeasance. Within a week, and seemingly without regret, she had rumbled the estate manager’s small time mielie-meal scam.

‘You should have heard us screaming at each other that night. Nedson would shout at me, disappear for a bit, and then come back to shout some more. At one point I saw this little axe on the table and thought to myself you had better get hold of that before he does. Well, you should have seen Nedson run—out of the kitchen, through the theatre, and into the bar, slamming all the doors behind him. I ran after to explain I meant no harm but he sprinted away again, all the way to CCC central office to lay a complaint.’

I slept in perfect comfort that night on the spongy square that was once the sacrosanct domain of ageing white sports enthusiasts, who in their whites once obsessed over the glide and swing of big black balls. The adjacent clay tennis courts were falling to ruin too, and of course the cricket and rugby fields were overgrown, but the lights had winked on in the bar, and I saw Marianne smoking there for a minute or two, a forlorn symbol of this strange and fragile new ecosystem that depended for everything on the profitability of a single, giant pig farm.

In the morning it was the disgraced manager himself who conjured a hearty breakfast of fatty staff ration pork rashers served to me on the distinctive speckled cream crockery of the Tobacco Sales Floors. He claimed he knew my uncle and aunt very well, and insisted I follow him into the bar after I’d finished my tea.

‘Look up at those feet on the ceiling. Do you remember the history that is here?’ I followed his gaze to a montage of painted hands and feet, and recalled that outgoing members, if they were well liked, got dipped in paint and turned into human stamps. According to Nedson the district health inspector had recently ordered Dianne to ‘clean the dirty ceiling.’

‘“It bloody well isn’t dirt,”’ hooted Nedson, perfectly mimicking the indignation of Dianne’s type; “‘it’s history, and I’m sorry, but we’re not going to do anything about it until you can tell the difference.”’

Dianne returned from the CCC workshop with a turgid bicycle tyre and an ominous message from management. ‘They say it’s a bad time to be doing what you’re doing. Now that Tsvangirai has joined government the war vets are tense, and they might see you as a threat. Also, bear in mind the safety of the people you speak to. It is all very well to want to meet up with old friends, but it might well make life uncomfortable for them.’

Urging caution has long been a national pastime in Zimbabwe, especially in the countryside, where inter-farm communication collapsed at the same time as all other economic activity, breaking the district up into isolated, distrustful villages and compounds. Knowing that concern was a reflex was, however, no comfort to me as I crossed, without a word of Shona and fulfilling every detail of a most suspicious profile, onto the old family farm.

I instantly suspected two youths standing by the turn of being war veterans, or perhaps even members of Mugabe’s youth militia, known pejoratively as Green Bombers.

‘Better give them a friendly wave,’ I thought, and sharply, ‘oh crap, the sign of the MDC…’

One of the boys stared at me with unnerving intensity.

‘Boss Sean, you are back?’

I wobbled to a stop.

‘It is me, Patrick, Benedict’s son.’

‘Benedict! How is Benedict?’

‘Ah Benedict is fine.’

‘And February? Is that madala still alive?’

‘He is alive. Come with me.’

Benedict and February had worked in the farmhouse for thirty-four and thirty-six years respectively, cooking, washing, polishing floors, stoking boiler fires and churning milk. Independence came and went and they continued to answer to a little brass bell every morning at breakfast, which I rang with great enthusiasm on the holidays during which I intersected with this odd, anachronistic world of master and servant.

Now shouts of ‘you must come back to us, we are struggling here’, came from my gathering entourage of boys in their late teens and early twenties.

By the time we were amongst the mud huts and red brick houses of the compound I was being pulled towards February and he was being pulled towards me, still managing to puff a newspaper joint into life. In spite of his milky blue cataracts he started laughing at some distance, and closed the remaining metres with open arms. We then spent a few formal minutes working through a roll call of mutual acquaintances, ending with the news of my grandfather’s death.

‘Oh sorry, sorry, sorry,’ he said, taking my hand and beginning to cry. I started crying too, and the scene embarrassed the younger boys who either laughed or looked solemn, and suggested we leave immediately to find Benedict, who had moved his family to the next farm.

‘Is it far?’ I whispered to Patrick, when February showed signs of readying for the walk.

‘About two kilometres.’

‘Will February be alright?’

‘February is strong,’ he whispered back, ‘because he worked inside when was young. You cannot make his age if your work is digging holes.’

Or slowly starving to death, which was all any of the boys seemed to be doing with their time.

To get to the right track we had to first circumnavigate the old farmyard, which was under the control of war veterans and therefore prescribed a pace little short of a jog. When the sound of a tractor engine drew near everyone swore, but the driver turned out to be Isaac, a toothless forty year old who had in his twenties pulled me around the yard in a small toy trailer. He was one of a handful of men from the compound still employed by the farm, though the manager only paid him and the others in food and water, which it was Isaac’s present job to fetch from the neighbouring farm.

‘Your daddy’s old house is zero,’ he lamented. ‘The boreholes have all broken so there is no water for anyone. I have to fetch it everyday from ___’

‘No electricity, no food’ chanted Patrick and his brothers. ‘All we grow here is grass.’ Isaac looked nervous, and soon took off through the barren stock yards on his water round. The youngsters, however, had nothing to lose, and continued to heap scorn on the new owner as we drew past a fearsome blue standing stock that had once been used for immobilising calves during castration.

‘Sometimes we see him,’ said Patrick. ‘Some weekends. But I don’t think he likes coming here because there is nothing. He has failed. His people just live there in the big house, and we just live here in the compound. They can do nothing, and we can do nothing. They are zero and we are zero.’

According to the boys the current owner was a prominent Zanu-PF politician, one of many new-era pariahs who, like Didymus Mutasa, had abused their authority to accumulate multiple properties at the turn of the century. His political pasture was on the other side of the country, and so the farm had become little more than a weekender retreat situated conveniently near to Norton, which has become something of a haunt for the Zanu-PF brat pack.

‘It is very strange to me,’ James had said back in Harare, ‘that people who sold their farms under duress always seem to lose less sleep about the issue than those who had their land simply taken from them. I mean, isn’t it exactly the same thing?’ I was not sure, but hot feelings about stolen property seemed quite immaterial in the face of the farms’ unfolding human tragedy.

Our small procession crossed the pig sties, which used to debouche fantastic colours of after-birth into a rancid marsh, and dived into a wall of elephant grass where there had once been a perimeter road. I was glad for the silence imposed by single track walking, because I could think of little to say, and was uncomfortably conscious of the fact that my appearance had generated a degree of hope in the youngsters, for whom the farm had become an a sinkhole for even the lowliest aspirations.

‘South Africa is a good place isn’t it?’ they shouted rhetorically, and, ‘We want to jump the border to South Africa, but it costs too much money.’

Certainly more money than the R1500 I had rolled up in a sock in my backpack, which was all I had brought in the way of remittance, not having known who of the workers was still alive and well, and living on the farm.

Benedict’s homestead consisted of two mud huts conveniently situated across the path from a small, hyacinth-clad dam. He dropped a hoe he had been digging with, and came towards us shouting, ‘yo yo yo yo…’

He looked quite starved, but would only say it was because he was ‘working hard these days.’

‘Just look at all these children. This one and this one are not even mine.’

The death of his brother had added to his family, but diarrhoea had taken Tendeka away. ‘It was MaNyoka, what you call it—just a stomach thing, but he died because there is no medicine anywhere.’

I delivered his former employers’ obituaries, and February added that his own wife and one of his sons had died. Before the boys got started on their own woes we moved quickly to agreeing that it was a very happy day indeed, and I asked nicely if I could stay the night.

‘We have no food,’ said Benedict, ‘and I’m sure the water here is dangerous for you. We boil it, but it is still not good.’

‘I will get some mielie meal and pork from the pig farm,’ I said with presumptuous gusto. ‘I will bring a lot of pork, then we can all have dinner together—you, me, February, Isaac and the children.’

The white boss would provide. I flew to the gates of CCC, dipped my wheels and shoes in biocide, then dispensed my story to a successive string of managers leading all the way to the head office, where a woman called Rhoda smiled and said, ‘Its good to do these things sometimes — good for the soul.’ She rustled up two kilograms of mielie meal and five kilograms of bloody pork in a translucent bag—loin, chops, rashers and knuckles— and winked as she handed over a receipt for 400 Zimbabwean dollars (R25).

‘I haven’t invoiced for the mielie meal. Just make sure you hide it well.’

February cooked a memorable stew that night, using curry powder salvaged from the old farmhouse. The table mats depicting landscape scenes in New Zealand were familiar too, as were the glasses, the crockery, and, I swear, a teaspoon with an abrupt square end. The youngsters had scratched up a pack of Pacifics in my honour, and we smoked and drank coke, and repeatedly said it was a happy day. At some point Benedict stood up and with his hands flapping deep in the pockets of an over-sized jacket and asked, ‘Do you remember this?’ I did, and knew he wasn’t referring to the coat.

‘When I want to scare my children I flap this coat like this. They say, “ah, you are the madala boss, madala boss. Stop scaring us!”’ It was a most pleasing caricature. The old farmer had never liked the cold and as he aged the morning journey from the farmhouse to the yard became a gauntlet between heaters, across which he shuffled fast in out-sized coats. Invariably he would become marooned midway when some or other employee approached bearing the first problem of the day. You would see him there fiercely stamping out the cold and flapping his coat, not unlike an irascible elephant.

The only awkwardness of the night came when I took a surprise photograph of February serving dinner. The flash popped and blew light into the night, and led to such a deal of muttered Shona I put the camera away for good.

‘You must rather take a picture of the old house,’ said Benedict. ‘Your family will want to see pictures of that.’

Isaac gave a cautionary whistle.

‘Is that not a good idea?’

‘It is not a good idea.’

‘And the yard, do you think I could walk around the yard tomorrow?’

‘That is also problem. They are afraid.’

Later, lying in the compound on a grass mat in February’s pantry, I tried to imagine what kind of lives the new owners were leading in the big farmhouse. Every night a menagerie of creatures had issued from the curtain boxes, including longichorns, mantises and hawk moths with angry eyebrows. A feral cat had once tackled a barn owl in the ceiling, and it was only by electric light that we could establish it wasn’t a banshee coven. In the permanent blackout of the present such assurances weren’t available to the new owners. Nor, since the failure of the boreholes, was the luxury of flushing toilets. And was not the old faint but ever-present fear of the master for his servants now theirs, and perhaps deepened to paranoia by the failures they’d overseen?

I felt a brief, mighty gust of righteous—murderous—indignation, which soon fell flat. My dark fantasies were stale, having passed through the dreams of dismissed labourers in my grandfather’s time, and in his father’s time. I was a mere guest of the feudal continuum, with no real resentment rights.

Nevertheless I awoke the next morning feeling mischievous, and went weaving through huts, coops, and out-houses until I was free of the village heading as the crow would fly for the farmhouse. The sun wasn’t quite up but I could see perfectly well, which meant I could be seen as I worked my way through the naked acacias in the old dairy cow camp that embraced the farmhouse garden. I intended to take cover in the elephant grass that grew by the pool, or by the lemon trees at the back near the old boiler, but all chance of concealment had literally gone up in the smoke of a fire that had burnt straight through the camp and into the garden, all the way to the walls of the house. I was just readying my camera for pictures when an alarm went up—two quick whistle blasts, which had me sprinting back to the compound along old cow tracks. I froze deep amongst the acacias, thinking, ‘Idiot! You were told not to try that.’ The alarm sounded again and it was answered by a double whistle directly behind me—a heuglin’s robin, one of a pair just warming up for the day. I crept sheepishly back to the compound.

While re-assembling my motley effects I was seduced by the giggles of a toddler in a blue dressing gown. She had brown eyes and her hair had been pulled and twisted in a dozen directions, like the scapes of an agapanthus.

‘Do you know her name?’ asked February, puffing on the first zol of the day. ‘They call her Lolla, after your sister.’

Lolla’s father was busy with my second puncture, watching the semi-inflated inner tube for bubbles as he paid it rapidly through a bowl of water. I recorded these details because I thought: that’s how I’m going to end the story – with the image of a father and daughter at the beginning of a new Zimbabwean day, read peace deal.

But as I write now, weeks later, there is still no sign that a unity government will be formed. The real meaning of the ‘historic peace deal’ may well be that it served to divert the worlds’ attention elsewhere, a strong possibility that becomes doubly depressing when you consider that Thabo Mbeki, the African leader who managed to bring Mugabe to the negotiating table again and again, has since been deposed from power in his own country.

It is Benedict’s words that make the more suitable pause. ‘The rains are coming and there is no seed. How will we survive until December? Nobody knows.’