for Chattanooga Organized for Action, a perpetual source of inspiration
Last week, my Zimbabwean bureaucracy saga finally came to a temporary close, with a requisite trip from Bulawayo to Harare to pick up the temporary employment permit that means I can finally begin teaching at the university here. One hasn’t always had to go to Harare for such things, but that is apparently The Way of Things Now. I’ve taken plenty of buses in my life, and Zimbabwean buses are no better or worse than any others, but a seven-hour bus ride is a seven-hour bus ride, and in my time-sensitive haste to organize travel – I was given seven days to organize the trip up before I was unable, even, to renew a tourist visa – I tacked on a weekend trip to Johannesburg, one last relaxing hurrah before teaching began in earnest.
One of the most interesting things about Johannesburg, noticeable immediately from air and land, is how much of the urban area of the city – population around eight million all told – is colonized by active or discarded mining sites. Johannesburg as a population and economic center specifically grew up around mining, and on the backs of the enslaved, pressed, extorted, and migrant labourers who backbreakingly shovelled the earth’s wealth out by hand. The underbelly of many cities is ecologically and economically grotesque – although you might enjoy drinking Goose Island beer, for instance, from Chicago, the brewery is located atop an old slaughterhouse/abbatoir run-off site; much of lower Manhattan is built up on discarded trash and oyster shells from its earliest inhabitants; and there are giant hills circling the city of Sour (Tyre), Lebanon, just outside of the city center – which are composed entirely of snail shells that were discarded in the labor-intensive practice of extracting purple dyes from them during the Phoenician eras; and the elevated park in downtown Atlanta is built on the architecture left behind by elevated urban railways meant to convey goods from warehouse to warehouse (see also NYC’s Highline Park).
But in all of the above cases, these places were creatively reclaimed – and in many cases aggressively gentrified – in the service of creating urban density. Johannesburg’s inner city has, for decades, been a place of concentrated poverty, crime, and despair. Indeed, when I spoke to a police officer there, he told me to leave – get out of downtown before sundown because there was no way I’d get out alive. Everyone everywhere knows of the spectacular violence of South African cities. Zimbabweans inclined to complain about their own economy and muse wistfully about the wealth that side nevertheless pull themselves up and remark on the terrible violence. At least that’s not a concern here, everyone will say; we can at least live our lives here. But the crime that side...eish.
In Jo’burg, not so much. The first time I flew over Jozi, I noticed that the land beneath was urban sprawl – lateral, attenuated stretches of asphalt and streetlights and highway stretching out in all directions. And like many megalopolises – one might think of Dallas/Forth Worth, where I grew up, or the Austin-San Antonio corridor, or the entire upper East Coast of America – city blends into city, as Pretoria stretches south to Jozi’s northward grasp. But in the middle of all of this: flattened pyramidal shapes of shifted land, guttering leftover flats, barren, trash-filled craters.
In downtown, in the ‘Newtown’ section of the city, where urban rehabilitation is slowly moving forward, crystallizing around a theatre and museum complex, there is the Worker’s Museum. Not wholly impressive as a museum – there are only a handful of informative signs, and a lofted room with a timeline of South African labour – it is nevertheless evocative, a preserved example of a worker’s hostel from the early 20th century.
Worker’s hostels have been a feature of Jozi life from its inception; after all, the interior of South Africa was colonized hastily precisely because of the discovery of mineral wealth – diamonds and gold – that in turn pushed the rapacious Rhodes north in what he called Rhodesia, and I now live in as Zimbabwe. From the beginning, Africans were pressed into mining labour by the colonial government – often due to the invention and imposition of hut, dog, and poll taxes – whereby colonizers could require the locals who had always lived there to suddenly have to “pay” for their “keep.” And so able-bodied men were often tricked into signing labour contracts that kept them bonded to mining companies for six months, a year, two years, five.
On a beautifully breezy Saturday morning, I parked my car in Braamfontein and sought out the Neighbourgoods Market. Housed in a reclaimed parking deck, this once-a-week market concentrates all sorts of delicious foods – from biltong to milk tarts to paella – and the sorts of hipster handicrafts that people in my class adore. I bought a framed picture of a dinosaur. (I am no immune to acculturated charms.)
I stood on the breezy patio, looking up and down the street, to see an emerging single-file line of people in black tshirts, with duct tape over their mouths. I strained and squinted and caught a sign; it was a protest against slavery, which it should not surprise any of us continues to this day, in spite of our smug proclamations against in the 19th century. It goes by so many other forms now that it can be hard to recognize, but it’s there.
“The white man who drives the lorry puts his head out and looks back. He looks long at Jabavu and at his brother, and then his head goes inside. Then a black man gets out of the front and walks back. He wears clothes like the white men and walks jauntily...’Yes, yes –you boys there! Want a lift?’
Mining labor is intensive, sometimes terrifying labor. At Newtown, just outside the Worker’s Museum, is a small boulder with a round iron plaque, in memory of all those who died in mining disasters over the decades. There’s little else to commemorate them, although all of this abuts Mary Fitzgerald Square, named after a female labor activist. Commemoration is a funny thing; it can create the conditions of official memorialisation while also discouraging active memory. In Fitzgerald Square, unattached men sprawl out on small grassy berms under smaller, shrubby trees; a man sat on an iron bench reading a paperback. I had parked nearby, and always a feature of South African life, a car attendant deputized himself to walk me to the Museum, although he didn’t know where it was. “You don’t want to go down there,” he said, pointing to an open gate next to a walled compound leading to the museum; “a woman went there yesterday and was screaming for the police, but no one came.” The terrifying echoes of the terrified woman judder in my head, reminding me of the fearless, laid-bare scholarly work of Pumla Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare.
We walked in the bright light of the morning, a cool spring air burning off under the crystalline sun, and he chattered at me, always reminding me that his work is remunerated, don’t I know, since I’m not from around here? The guidebook reminds you that car attendants are generally meant to be paid five rand, or ten, depending on the traffic, the likelihood that they prevented theft, the length of your parking stay. There aren’t any public parking spots that are metered or privatized, at least not nearly as many as in an American city. Chattanooga’s downtown is almost entirely parking-privatized; while the cost isn’t necessarily exorbitant, meter attendants are assiduous in applying fines and tickets to cars that haven’t coughed up the requested fees. Car attendants are therefore an entrepreneurial ambivalence: better to pay an un- or underemployed man to do passive labor in a space he otherwise inhabits than to feed a parking meter that drifts into the pockets of the owners of publicly-privatized spaces. Better to give a man money to eat and drink than pay rent on a parking space for two hours.
When we celebrate entrepreneurialism, we reserve our bouquets for the Cult of Disrupters, celebrating those few whose stabs at carving an economic niche defy logic and reason, who create a need to consume where there wasn’t one before.
“An ever-rising stream of shining rocks and pebbles and fine dust would travel upwards to be sifted, crushed and sorted for the fine yellow metal men love and call gold...and gold dust streamed upwards to make men wealthy and powerful.” (Peter Abrahams, Mine Boy)
The inside of the workers’ quarters steam under the corrugated tin roofing in the heat of the sun. A sign explains that there were separate quarters for white men working in the mines and black men; the white mens’ quarters were no good, but the black mens’ quarters were no good at all. While the former had easier access to water, shade, and a small amount of space to share with their families, the Africans’ dormitories resemble prison camps, or concentration camps, or the hold of a slave ship: concrete three-foot-wide bed-slots running across the wall, a platform of wooden planks demarcating further sleeping areas stacked above those. African men were pointedly not allowed to have women, or children, or wives-and-families, anywhere near the mines, and as contracts often required six- or seven-days’ labour a week for a fixed period of time, few if any could return to their families, who lived outside of the towns in their traditional villages and homes. Colonialists concern-trolled these families, explaining that the conditions were too unsanitary for women and children -- but apparently not for the white women and children who lived on site, or the black men who lived on site in even worse conditions. The effect was that urban centers – especially Johannesburg – were deeply weighted towards bachelors, and women who lived in cities – a trope that continues culturally to this day in some areas – were considered immoral and fast women, present only to be taken advantage of by migrant and itinerant men.
For unattached women, that was sometimes the case; if a woman was considered or considered herself unmarriageable, she might make her way to the city to try to carve out a life by hook or by crook, serving skokiaan (homebrewed ethyl alcohol spirits) or maize beer (cloudy, fermented maize-meal drinks) at shebeens (ramshackle watering holes/bars) and/or working in brothels. Under the economic and social pressures of colonialism, the family structure in Southern Africa took an immediate beating – and in South Africa in particular, the demographic patterns that were established continued apace for most of the twentieth century, even as urban spaces in Africa tended toward greater economic diversity and (slightly) less stratification.
The story of any modern urban space is the story of continuous dislocation – moving the poor and undesirable to new, more undesirable places. In Chattanooga, the downtown plaza where the homeless gather during the day has been sold, rendering a public land private under the auspices of development. But the city would prefer to reserve the space – as the signs say all over southern Africa, “right of admission reserved” – for wealthier newcomers courted relentlessly with condo developments, tax incentives, and publicity campaigns. Even migrant labourers located in the heart of Johannesburg in the 1940s, formerly historically housed in city center hostels like the one that the Worker’s Museum has preserved, were also shifted off-site and out-of-mind, as the wealth of the city attracted more white workers whose white-collar skills were needed to calculate and keep track of the mineral wealth snaking its way through accounts and pockets. Townships were invented further away from the city centers, requiring workers to resettle and then shift themselves through the urban periphery to mining jobs and other menial labours.
“They were near the little township now. They could see the houses clearly. And the people moving about in the yards and by the sides of the houses. This side of the township had mostly coloured people. The other side was where the native people were.
This off-siting was further complicated by proto-apartheid pass laws, requiring all men to carry a paper book with the name, address and signature of their employer in the city centres that permitted them police-supervised access into and out of the city, sometimes in gates and turnstiles and entryways marked “Native” or “Coloured.” The Apartheid Museum’s opening gambit is to randomly assign its visitors “White” or “Coloured” status on the backs of their tickets, and which one you receive determines which entryway you pass through to get into the museum. It’s a crucible of sorts whose effect is minor: the white ticket holders are given access to a gently rising concrete slope, easier to stroll up than the set of stairs that confront the coloured ticket holders. The stairs aren’t enough to dissuade or tire any museum-goer, but it’s a small reminder that the way up is always more arduous for the underclass.
Apartheid laws enforced the segregation of black from white, and in the ways of such things, reserved the best of all worlds for the civilized white people, leaving a carefully-maintained minimum for the unfavoured. One of the most chilling quotes adorning the walls of the Worker’s Museum was from an official government report at the turn of the 20th century wherein a Boer social scientist mused that Africans seemed to prefer airless, claustrophobic, unsanitary conditions, and so the worker’s hostels were constructed accordingly, to give them what they want. That level of insane delusion was propped up by the “science” of the day, just as phrenology and physiognomy ostensibly “proved” the savagery and criminality of nonwhites, or the Moynihan Report pointed out the faux-inherent instability of black American families.
Conditions in the townships were sometimes worse than in the city-center workers’ hostels, lacking even basic sanitation and water access, lacking formal construction and creating “high-density” peri-urban spaces that persist to this day. The founding of Bulawayo, for instance, pioneered just such an urban construction, leaving the wide avenues of the city for whites to live, do business in, and play; the peri-urban high-density areas of Mzilikazi and Makokoba were constructed in the obviously less salubrious Western districts of the city, upwind from the abbatoirs and slaughterhouses, and literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.
“He turned a corner and suddenly became aware of Malay Camp. Became aware of it as he had not been before.
When I left the Apartheid Museum, located next to the Disneyfication of Johannesburg’s mining past – Gold Reef City, a gaudy theme park with rollercoasters and festival foods – I pulled out in search of a bookstore I knew to be located on the other side of town. But the GPS unit in the car told me the address was surprisingly near, and I followed it, driving through industrial parks that fronted and fringed former mining sites. A few turns past crypto-suburban strip malls, and I passed a sign that blazoned “Welcome to Soweto!” In front of the sign, a group of beaming white teenagers stood and mugged and snapped photos, making peace signs. The guidebook advises that there are now dozens of tour operators in Soweto and other former townships, and that they are all really quite good, and worth the half-day trip to walk the winding streets, taking note of historical violences and peering at the houses of South Africa’s 20th century great men, who streamed up from Soweto, emboldened and angered by the enstructured poverty and violence that attended their youths.
I’ve written elsewhere about poverty tourism; many people have. I fear that it encourages the preservation of unequal economic conditions under the neoliberal celebration of resilience and packaged under the rubric of ethical bourgeois consumption. These white teens did nothing to ameliorate these fears, and although I too enjoy visiting sites that point to the triumph of human spirit over adversity, Soweto is a real, still living place. It is not evacuated, emptied of still-suffering human life; nor is it anymore as bad as it once was, although never uniformly. The streets I now steered down erroneously showed the density of these urban spaces even as many of the shanties and shacks were gone, replaced by cement-walled, small houses, spaces for a burgeoning lower-middle-class, tiny postage stamp yards with squares of petunias. The streets were recently-paved and riddled with debris; the pedestrians on the street peered curiously at me, likely unfazed by the presence of yet another white person visiting their neighbourhood, however erroneously. Plots erupted from these ordered homes irregularly, trash-strewn shortcuts between blocks, ringed with murals that proclaimed sensible policies about safe sex and against child abuse, letters fading on crumbling walls. There were street-stall barbershops and shebeens, produce vendors and a “sneaker washer” industriously polishing the white shell leather of Adidas kicks to a sheen.
The Apartheid Museum displayed in a half-dozen places and a half-dozen different contexts, images of the political organization that came out of the density and shared grievances of the townships. These images are famous markers of the cruelty of the apartheid system and its enforcement. There is the self-shocking joy of the men holding their passbooks, flames crawling up its pages and twisting the image, casting light on this act of supreme civil resistance. Police men on the backs of trucks gripping weapons, seconds before opening fire on the massing crowds in Sharpeville. The most iconic image from this terrible event appears to be from a horror film, or stolen from the darkest recesses of the Vietnam War: men and women frantically scattering across a field, penned in by barbed-wire fences, gunned down, live bodies leaping over fallen ones in a desperate attempt to break away from the death pulsing towards them in short bursts. These photos don’t differ too much from the violent response to student protests in Soweto, also captured in black and white, men and women frantically craning their heads back to take stock of those taking aim at them, sprinting towards the unseeable cameraman dutifully recording the slaughter.
“The pulsating motion of Malay Camp at night was everywhere. Warm and intense and throbbing.
And while Soweto and other townships were the crossroads of spectacular resistance and even more spectacular violence, there was nothing fantastic about Soweto now that you might note except, precisely, its normalcy. Gone were the armoured vehicles of apartheid, now planted in museums, broken glass panes testifying to their heavy use. Gone, too, are the pass books, replaced in some ways by the minibuses plying the roads, taking poor workers in and out of the city center to work retail, clean offices, drive buses, service hotels, man garages, gather scrap, sell goods, make a living. There is no pass book but there is bus fare, small as it might be, and the gears of capitalism replace obvious boundary lines with intangibly priced barriers to entry and passage. A persistent beggar’s refrain was no different from the stories encountered at American gas stations and no less tragic for it: “Please, sir, I just need a few rand to catch the bus home to my family. I need to catch a bus, any amount will help.”
Even if Soweto has stabilized, mainstreaming towards the de rigeur economic stratification of the 21st century, South Africa is still a deeply unequal society. While living conditions for Africans have improved – the cities boast potable water and regular electricity, infrastructure developed and developing, wages governed by on-the-books minimums – its distribution is wildly unequal and some of the inequality has turned. The internalized barriers between racial haves and have-nots is still everywhere apparent in the leafy and traffic-jammed suburb of Sandton, whose billboards boast it has the wealthiest square kilometres in Africa and whose malls contain Western chains and luxury stores, from Guess to Gucci. Workers clump on street sides there, waiting for minibuses to take them back to lives of decidedly less luxury, as apartment buildings fringed with cement walls and stationed security guards rise up on each side of the jammed streets, while the white and black middle and upper classes steer their gleaming cars into parking garages and down thoroughfares glutted with the visible trappings of consumption.
Instead of racial bars, there are class-based shibboleths; there are cars and minibuses; there are tailored buttondown shirts and blouses, and blue-and-neon jumpsuits. And there is also the persistent and pervasive logics of belonging and not-belonging.
Even the poorest South African is impressed by the utopian promises of the post-Apartheid constitution, a document that promises equality even for groups whose recognition in the 1990s was tenuous at best in more developed countries – queer people and disabled people were explicitly recognized as critical segments of society. But this logic of belonging has taken on its own potent logics of exclusion, too. The beacon of South African democracy and its post-Apartheid success story act as a draw to suffering African others fleeing violence and instability elsewhere. South Africa, like America, has learned to make places for the most accomplished migrants, capitalizing on the educational successes and costs borne elsewhere by now-less-successful societies that have succumbed to disorder or kleptocracies. And migrant labour is still the beating heart of South Africa’s industrial and service sectors, hostels still exist everywhere throughout Johannesburg, although not quite as concentrated and segregated as before. In the 1990s, migrants to South Africa were white Rhodesians who could not accustom themselves to living in an independent Zimbabwe, or Mozambicans fleeing the continuing civil unrest after decades of civil war. In the 20th century, especially after the Zimbabwean hyperinflationary crisis of 2008, the border at Beitbridge saw a stream of people fleeing from suddenly boneshattering poverty, teachers and civil servants now un- or underpaid for the labor that required educational investments.
The scripts for who belongs and who doesn’t are always-already in place, demarcating social boundaries inside geographical ones. But the self-same scripts that circulated black African bodies out of town centers and into locations, townships, and Bantustans, and which still exert force as economic vectors, are also mobilized through false consciousness to describe the otherness of foreign nationals within the coalescing logic of post-Apartheid South African nationalism.
“’Yes, it must be the migrant workers from the hostels,’ various people in the crowd shouted angrily. ‘They have killed a lot of our people, and all we do is sit here and keep on talking peace. Are we men or just scared rats?’
Money coalesces fear, drives violence. Age-old logics of scarcity and unequal distribution beget burgeoning fears of an invasive other come to take what little has trickled down. Accumulation is not seen to be the, or a, problem, but rather it is the undesirable and unknowable other who has come to carve out a living from the little there is to go around. This fear motivates xenophobia elsewhere, as in the spectral Mexicans crossing the border to take “our” jobs in America, or the spectrally violent “Mexican rapists” that Trump decried in his opening salvo at the presidency. No matter that such proclivities are violent, projective phantasies; no matter that statistics, in the American context anyway, bear out that immigrants are far less violent, and far more socially stable than most white Americans. Xenophobia crystallizes fear in at-hand scripts handily generated by the 19th-century logics of nationalism and nation-state.
Kopano Matlwa’s novel Period Pain records precisely this xenophobia, depicting educated Zimbabweans in South Africa seeking stable employment but met at every turn with crude beliefs and cruel shunning. The things that “everyone” in Mda’s novel “knows” – that the foreign other is beholden to some power other than the one that every local bows down to – be it Mammon or Parliament – are convenient fictions that work as well as physical borders in ascertaining belonging. Violence has erupted since the exodus of Zimbabweans from the crumbling 21st century economy, a torrent in the wake of hyperinflation, but a continuous stream of temporary and migrant workers, students seeking a better education from their own rightful teachers who have fled south for liveable wages.
“Throughout the day the TV has been ablaze with burning shacks, burning shops and burnt people. The streets are crawling with bloodthirsty men calling for foreigners to leave the country. Nyasha came home after me and went straight to her room and hasn’t stirred since. So I watched the news alone with the sound on mute. They showed images of a naked man being dragged by a mob of boys, blood gushing from his head, and then an image of a group of policemen pouring water over the body of an elderly woman. Hammers, axes, knives, bottles, sticks, rocks, men, women, children, animals everywhere.
In spontaneous eruptions of xenophobic violence, foreigners were often brutally attacked, seemingly at random, collared with tyres that were set on fire. Neil Blomkamp’s movie District 9 famously metaphorizes this “alien invasion” as real aliens invading Johannesburg, absorbing the fierce ire of South Africans angry and fearful at the perceived loss of their small chances at success. Xenophobia quite apparently contains the roots of the language of aliens – “xeno,” which the dictionary notes can be glossed as “alien,” “strange,” or “guest,” each of these roots spelling an entirely different tenor. “Alien” is the language preferred by those who aspire to paint the other as radically other, unassimilable; see the American language of “illegal alien,” that curiously redundant construction that denies both hope and humanity to the immigrant. They are “illegal,” and thus contravening by their essential nature the laws of ‘our’ land; they are “aliens,” marauding extraterrestrials bent on eating our brains, and land, and wealth. An indelible image from America’s recent xenophobic past is burnt into my brain. Honduran children, bravely navigating absolutely treacherous pathways through Central America and Mexico, arrived at the border of Texas seeking asylum from certain death and damning impoverishment. They were funnelled onto buses to be shipped to frigid holding cells where they awaited trial and were often returned; although surely in that moment, the children held out a small hope that they might find shelter and stability. That minor hope was shattered by a self-appointed cadre of white women who frisked up and down the side of those recommissioned schoolbuses, slamming the panels and shouting “GO BACK” and other things too disgusting to repeat. Children who had faced violence and had the wherewithal to flee it were ruthlessly singled out by self-righteous vigilantes bent on protecting us from them – they who knew they were not themselves strong enough to withstand violence, nor desirous of becoming one with a system that might require them, in turn, to inflict violence on those smaller than themselves.
Home fires are burning – others, and for self.
“Things are spiralling out of control. One of the Nigerian doctors was spat on by a patient yesterday. According to the other interns, the patient said she didn’t want to be examined by a cockroach. Many of the foreign doctors are now saying they don’t feel safe coming to work...
On my last morning in Johannesburg, I stopped by a Maboneng coffee stall to get a smoothie and to sit on the sidewalk, basking for better or worse in the familiar bourgeois comforts of urban gentrification. I struck up a conversation with the bespectacled woman spinning the hissing steamwand and shaking out my smoothie into a plastic cup. I asked her how things were, and heard the familiar “Eishhh,” at which I let drop that I was visiting from Bulawayo.
“Bulawayo! So you are from Zimbabwe!”
Well, not quite, but for the time being, yes.
“Did you take the bus? I am from that area. Gwanda: do you know it? You passed through it on the road to Beitbridge.”
No, I said, I took a plane; but I was familiar with Gwanda, a growing town with a new university, a growth-point in the chain stretching down towards South Africa’s economic safety.
“Ehhhh, and how much does a plane ticket cost to this side?”
(“This side,” I smiled to myself. This side, that side, the ambiguous linguistic markers that supplant ‘here’ and ‘there’ in Zimbabwean speech.) “Oh, not a lot, but still too much. $350 US if you’re lucky?”
“Eishhh, that is too much. At Christmas” (Anthony, the trainer at the gym, just asked me today if I was going home to ‘that side’ – America – at “Kissimuss,” which he gleefully told me is Ndebele from “Christmas”)—“At Christmas, I will go home to my family in Gwanda on the Intercape.”
Oh! I take the Intercape all the time between Bulawayo and Harare, I said. It is a nice bus.
“Oh yes, it is niiice, although the border takes so long to cross,” she said, referencing the long queues at Beitbridge chocked with runners and migrants and tourists. “I will only go home at Christmas,” she said crisply. She glazed over a little, clearly nostalgic for a home that was no longer economically viable. There was too little space for success for her in Zim, at least at the moment, but always the hope of returning for more than a holiday. I have no idea who, or how many, she has left behind. I know nothing more of her than she told me, and that I could construct out of the dregs of sociology and statistics. “Next year in Jerusalem,” observant and repentant Jewish people say at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services – next year in the home of their fathers, to be buried and find peace in ancestral homelands.
“Babylon system is the vampire, yeah / sucking the children day by day, yeah / I say the Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire / sucking the blood of the sufferers, yeah / Building church and university, yeah / Deceiving the people continually, yeah / I say they are graduating thieves and murderers, yeah, / Look out now, they are sucking the blood of the sufferers,” goes Bob Marley.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion,” goes the Psalm.
“Now the joy of my world is in Zion,” goes Lauryn Hill.
Either way, we’re looking for home, a place to belong to that’s more enduring than the world we inhabit. We are cast out into the world, seeking shelter and success, a space to call home, aliens everywhere but here, this side, where home is, or there, that side, where home was.
[speech given at Pamberi Trust's 'Celebration of Yvonne Vera,' Harare, National Gallery, October 3, 2017]
There is no question that Yvonne Vera’s work holds a special place in both Zimbabwean and African literature. But by virtue of her lyricism, her ambition to depict a broad sweeps of histories otherwise swept under the rug, her literature is a truly world literature – uncovering common humanity, carving out a space for the experience of women under colonial violences, revealing and reevaluating, too, the societies meant to give black African women rights and shelter. She spares no one, but her voice is not overwhelming or condemning. Like Nonceba’s survival in The Stone Virgins, there is a way through history, a way to live with and past the terrible violences that continue to haunt contemporary Zimbabwe.
In this way, I see a tremendous affinity between Vera’s work and those of the American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Her mother, Ericah Gwetai, makes mention of the fact that Vera re-read The Bluest Eye every year on her birthday; that novel, about the essential confusion about growing up black and abused, in a world that fetishized whiteness and power, has clear echoes all across Vera’s work, which poignantly looks at the racial dynamics intertwined with colonial dynamics in Rhodesia’s, and then Zimbabwe’s, 20th century. Both women write of the heinous violences inflicted on the most vulnerabled – and I use this in the past tense to foreground that vulnerability to violence is anything but essential, but rather something ideologically imposed. And both women skirt the usually bland celebratory bromides about women’s strength.
In October 2017, I attended the Women, Wine, and Words event as part of Bulawayo’s Intwasa Arts Festival. Five talented female poets from Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and the UK came together to perform their work. One of the common threads that ran through almost all of the poets’ work was this: “I’m tired” – tired of many things – of being underappreciated and rhetorically overvalued, denigrated and vaunted simultaneously. Indigo Williams’s take on this theme was particularly poignant; she began by talking about how, paradoxically, it is frustrating and wonderful to be taken as a “strong black woman.” But what of the days, she wondered, when it was hard to get out of bed? What of the times when her vulnerability was at the fore, and strength something hard to muster? How does one live in between strength and vulnerability without being consumed?
Vera’s work, like Morrison’s, isn’t afraid of boasting of the resilience of women and also depicting their vulnerability. Vera gives us women that fight as much as they can – as much as can be expected – and break, too. No one can stand the onslaught of dehumanizing violence without cracking, and Vera’s lyrical novels assemble those broken pieces into something like stained glass – illuminating and awe-inspiring.
We Need New Names
“Muzhanje is the name of a fruit from Chimanimani, in the eastern highlands, whose seed this man has brought stuck to the bottom of his pocket, then planted it in her mouth like a gift, days and days after they have met. She has stopped considering time and only considers him.” (Stone Virgins 43)
The passion with which Vera writes characters whose lives have already been – or about to be – ruthlessly scarred by violence and by history – serves as a tonic to run-of-the-mill arguments that representations of violence are abstractly dehumanizing. The way Vera writes violence does precisely the opposite – it renders their humanity palpable and real, not dominated by their place in history, but continuous with history, running alongside it, occasionally, cruelly, pierced by it.
The opening section of The Stone Virgins – the lull before the violence consumes us – depicts Kezi, and the Thandabantu Store, and Thenjiwe, and her lover. Thenjiwe hones in on her lover, full of him: “She brings home the man who gives her all her hips, who embraces her foot, who collects her shadow and places it right back in her body as though it were a missing part of herself, and she lets him gaze into her eyes till they both see stars through their tears. In the deep dark pool of her eyes the man sees places he has never been, she has never been” (SV 43). He has brought this strange fruit to her – the muzhanje, the name Thenjiwe chooses for her dream child, impossibly conceived in mind only.
She understands this native fruit – native, unlike the “Host of eucaplytus trees redolent; their scent euphoric,” or the jacarandas casting their blooms over Bulawayo’s streets, or the “fusion of dahlias, petunias, asters, red salvia and mauve petrea bushes” in Centenary Park, each of these plants an importation, a colonial transplant from the Antipodes and Caribbean and the reaches of the British Empire (SV 10). There can be a beauty in these transplants, Vera observes, but the muzhanje is the fruit that ignites Thenjiwe’s fascination. It is local and not – brought from a distant within, exotically local.
The colonial place names that open The Stone Virgins, its catalogue of Selborne, Fort, Main, Grey, Abercorn, Fife, Rhodes, Borrow streets, depict Bulawayo as it could officially be known and indexed, not unlike the catalogue of imported flowers that brighten Centenary Park. But that Bulawayo is one that is ultimately condemned to living as the past, a town prey to the homogenizing urban forces that render cities similar. Instead, Thenjiwe’s lover wants to taste the real place, not ‘Rhodesia,’ but Zimbabwe: to see “more than Bulawayo, after coming all the way from Chimanimani he wanted to see the Mopani shrubs, the Mtshwankela, the Dololenkonyane, the balancing Matopo Hills, the gigantic anthills of Kezi.” (45)
Colonialism didn’t make Africa go away, not under its gridded streets and imported street names, nor under its imported jacaranda trees. Africa lived alongside imperial Africa, contained in the places whose names are not forgotten, nor replaced, the flora native and indigenous and resilient. The work of reclaiming spaces, Vera writes, is only partially about effacing the names of the colonizers who controlled and wrangled and dictated. It is also about recognizing that the old names were always the names, no matter what dressing was applied.
There is much strange fruit in Vera’s work – fruit that is literally strange, that compels consumption, like the native-but-distant muzhanje fruit. Thenjiwe wants to know all about it, suspects that there is something important, resilient, productive in it. “She rises...to ask him on what soil the muzhanje grows, how long before each new plant bears fruit, how fertile its branches, how broad its leaf. She rises to ask what kind of tree the seed comes from, the shape of its leaves, the size of its trunk, the shape of its branches, the colour of its bloom, the measure of its veins” (46). The muzhanje, Thenjiwe believes, may give her access to tradition and place in a way that street signs misdirected and obfuscate. She, like Alex Haley’s displaced Africans in America, wants to understand roots – literal and figurative. “Thenjiwe knows that the roots of trees have shapes more definite than leaves,” Vera writes in The Stone Virgins. The surface is merely coincidental to the way that the tree grows in ground, rooted in place. Thenjiwe, before the violence that forecloses her life, seeks the strength of rootedness, of rediscovering place, and of forging a real relationship to it, grounded in loving and knowing.
This phrase “strange fruit” has a particularly American history; it is the name of the famous Billie Holliday song, penned by Abel Meeropol, it decries the American practice of extradjudicial killings of black men – a practice we historically call lynching, but these days I fear we just call “policing.” It metaphorized the lynched bodies of black men, darkly describing the methods of white supremacy to control and subjugate populations of color. Chester Himes, the African-American writer, remarked that “no one, no one, writes about violence the way Americans do. As a matter of fact for the simple reason that no one understand or expresses violence like the American civilians do. American violence is public life, it is a public way of life, it became a form...” But that isn’t exclusively true – black Zimbabwean writers have managed to develop a sophisticated language to describe the unspeakable, and Vera’s associative novels leave the reader breathless in the wake of horror, not unlike this moment in The Stone Virgins, the prevision of finality that afflicts Thenjiwe suddenly: “Muzhanje. Thenjiwe flicks the seed to the roof of her mouth and pushes the man aside, way off the bed. She has been hit by an illumination so profound, so total, she has to breathe deep and think about it some more. She wants to lie down, in silence.” (SV 44)
But there is other strange fruit, too, in Vera, as in the grisly tableau that opens Butterfly Burning, of the mass hanging of men...”The dead men remain in the tree for days. Their legs tied together, their hands hanging close to their stomachs. Toes are turned down to the ground as though the body would leap to safety. The foot curls like a fist, facing down. The feet of dancers who have left the ground. Caught. Surprised by something in the air which they thought free. The limbs smooth and taut, of dancers in a song with no words spoken. A dance denied. A blossom in a wind. A dark elegy” (BB 11). It takes great creativity and fortitude to render such a horrific scene so approachable and, dare I say, beautiful. It is not a beauty that celebrates violence or death in any way, but one that, as I argued before, humanizes its victims. In this passage, seventeen men are lynched in 1896, strange fruit overripe, cut short by the overzealous, overreaching, paranoiac violence at the heart of the founding of Rhodesia. “It is not a place with large trees,” Vera writes with dismay and wonder, “This tree, like these deaths, is a surprise. Away from the Umguza River which sings a lullaby each morning whatever the season, there are no trees” (BB 12).
Terence Ranger recalls of Vera their trip to the Cyrene Mission outside of Bulawayo, where she went to see the art and murals, and where Vera “saw for the first time the enlarged version of the photo of African men, captured in 1896 [during the Second Matabeleland War, as the English call it; the first Chimurenga as it should be known], hanging from a tree. She was astonished that the photograph fitted so exactly with her description of hanging men at the beginning of Butterfly Burning, the sense of the men swimming in the air, being as vivid in the photograph as in the book” (Petal Thoughts 90). Vera’s historical imagination was strong enough to conjure the horror of the scene, so in touch was she with history and culture, and with what Toni Morrison in Beloved, calls “re-memory.”
In Morrison’s Beloved, when Sethe is escaping the unthinkable violence of her slave plantation, seeking to give birth to her last child in freedom, she encounters the kindly Amy Denver, who massages her feet, and remarks, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts,” a painful description and a prophecy. Vera writes, continuing the gruesome scene, “[The women] are not allowed to touch the bodies. They do not grieve. It is better that the murdered are not returned to the living: the living are not dead. The women keep the most vital details of their men buried in their mouths” (BB 12). The women of Vera’s novel know that there is no live return from the space of the dead, no amelioration or respite, just names and impressions held silently until mourning breaks. Vera is also haunted by the permanence of violence, as if linked to troubled spots, crossroads of tribal, colonial, and nationalist violence.
One of the things most relished and valued about Morrison’s work – and the work of most canonical African-American writers – is its unflagging attention to historical truths, revealing the dark side of the American colonial enterprise, with its attendant slavery; Vera’s refusal to shy away from these historical violences makes her kin to Morrison. Sethe, in Beloved, ruminates, “I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” Vera’s affirming discovery of the photo of the hanged men demonstrates the vital power of rememory – the resurgence and reality of violence in places where trauma has occurred, where the attempt to efface or move beyond that violence is fraught with its perpetual recurrence. Vera is the guardian of Zimbabwean rememory, holder of truths that are, in some cases inconvenient, or disappointing, or regrettable.
Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals?
Her short story “Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals” gives insight, I think, into the difficulty of the work of writing Zimbabwe. The conversation between street artists - a carver and a painter - illuminates the differences between two-dimensional art, where you can add, revise, cover over, and three-dimensional art, like sculpture, that achieves a finished form that is true, even if it isn’t accurate. The painter, on the one hand, “puts the final touches on the image of the Victoria Falls which he paints from a memory gathered from newspapers and magazines. He has never seen the Falls. The water must be blue,” he thinks. He relies on this hodgepodge of hearsay and observation, but gives beauty and control the uppermost, inductively reasoning that the Falls must be blue – if water on maps is blue, if the sky is blue. He “realizes that a lot of spray from the falls must be reaching the lovers, so he paints off their heads with a red umbrella. He notices suddenly that something is missing in the picture, so he extends the lovers’ free hands, and gives them some yellow ice cream. The picture is now full of life,” he thinks (73). The painter and writer can revise, can insert, can alter and shift and move around, staying true to inductive principles but honoring beauty.
But beauty is not the only end, and while Keats encourages us to believe that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that’s all we need to know, Vera knows better. Art is also the purview of dream and imagination. “The carver has never seen the elephant or the giraffe that he carves so ardently,” her story observes, placing him in the same category of unknowing as the painter. But unlike the painter, who aims to achieve beauty through reason and truth, the sculptor knows there are other avenues for art. “He picks up a piece of unformed wood. Will it be a giraffe or an elephant? His carving is also his dreaming” (73). Like his dreaming, each carving is different, unique; spoiled, even, like his giraffe whose paint has run, and whose neck is comically short. He may seem the lesser artist by strictly aesthetic standards, but there is no question that he is an honest man, making honest art. The “unformed wood” is the wholecloth of history, the unknowable archive of all that has been, and the writer’s access to truth is contingent on honouring the materials she works with. The two artists – the painter and the sculptor – represent the collaborative pull between beauty and honesty, between pleasure and pain, thinking and dreaming.
I was doing research last year at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I wasn’t looking for Vera’s work, but I found among Charles Larson’s papers a copy of Vera’s final, unpublished work, Obedience. I was at the end of my stay at the library – quite literally; it was to close for the weekend in an hour and I was scheduled to leave town just after. But I couldn’t help but open up and thumb through the manuscript – which begins, indelibly, with a description of the stone birds of Great Zimbabwe. These birds don’t look exactly like an extant bird – but this is not the point at all, even if it might have been a good-faith effort at mimesis. Instead, they simply are: they endure, they are beautiful. In spite of colonial thefts, an independent Zimbabwe achieved their return; they roost once more at the site of rememory, presiding near the complex stone ruins that have fascinated throughout history.
The painter asks the carver in the story, “Why don’t you carve other animals?...Why do you never carve a dog or a cat? Something that city people have seen. Even a rat would be good there are lots of rats in the township!” (73). Why didn’t Vera write her stories and novels exclusively about the fascinating life she saw unfolding before her in the present? – a present that Zimbabwean readers could recognize immediately as their own? Why instead did she lyrically inhabit the past, the full sweep of local history?
Probably because she understood that the greatest foundations of art lie not in the mimetic transcription of things exactly as they are now, but rather in the imaginative flight through the past into the present and back again. Rememory exists anywhere where trauma, pain, violence, extremity has occurred, and there is no place where that is not true. Petina Gappah, a vital contemporary Zimbabwean writer, recently swore in a talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town that she was done with writing contemporary Zimbabwe after her impressive Rotten Row appeared in print – she wanted to explore the possibilities of writing elsewheres and elsewhens, to delve into history and unearth new old stories. These modes are not mutually exclusive, but this move reverberates with Vera’s temporal rangings, and describes the difficulty and ambivalence about approaching contemporary Zimbabwe without also attending to its past.
The Harry Ransom Center holds another crucial Zimbabwean manuscript – the unfinished manuscript of Doris Lessing’s novel “The Memorykeepers.” Tendai Huchu, in a story just published in the 2017 anthology Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories by ‘amaBooks in Bulawayo, recounts this piece of local folklore: “The Great Zimbabwe Empire was built by kings under the instructions of the Memorykeepers. You have heard of them, no? Of course not. It is an old – for lack of a better word – guild that has been there for as long as our people have been around. The Memorykeepers’ task is to remember everything.” The Memorykeepers are entrusted with the whole sweep of time, of remembering all that has been in order to inform what is to come.
Memorykeepers are rare indeed; not even every African literature has such an honest, exposed, and vulnerable writer. Indeed, not every African literature is capable of absorbing the persisting, the inconvenient truths. There will always be those who seek to wrest the past in service of a future that they desire, instead of honouring the past for the truths it has produced, in spite of its violences. Such manipulators of truth and history – regardless of their position or power – should never supplant those brave enough to tell us unpalatable truths about ourselves. There is no honor in easy deceit, in palatable fictions. If, as Huchu worries, “now there are fewer Memorykeepers than at any stage in the past and they cannot hold all the new knowledge that flows from the four corners of the world,” we must learn to celebrate those who have walked amongst us – giants like Vera – and those few who remain, who have access still to rememory in an era where information deceives, and truth slides, and lives nevertheless hang in the balance, feebly swimming against the wind.
Gwetai, Ericah. Petal Thoughts. Gweru, Mambo Press, 2008.
Morris, Jane, Ed. Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories. Bulawayo, ‘Amabooks, 2017.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eyes. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
--. Beloved. New York, Knopf, 1987.
Vera, Yvonne. Butterfly Burning. Harare, Baobab, 1998.
--. The Stone Virgins. Harare, Weaver Press, 2002.
--. Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals? Toronto, TSAR, 1992.
When I left the church, I also wanted to leave guilt behind. The what-what from the pulpit about original sin, and mounting spiritual debts. The stuff about turning the other check, and the needle’s eye, and blessed be the poor and the meek. No one can escape guilt, though; everyone has some portion, a slowly-amortizing, always-compounding debt.
Two days ago, ZESA struck, and the microgrid my building shares with the wholesale produce market and the egg and dairy shops collapsed. Twelve hours elapsed by the time I called the ‘fault line’ myself – no one had officially reported the outage. And crews were done for the day. And they hoped to get out next morning. Twenty-four hours elapsed, no power. No wifi. Dead laptop and phone, and the week’s shopping wilting in the warming fridge. The cleaners came through yesterday afternoon, and moved all of my vulnerable foods from my nonworking fridge to the fridge across the hall in the office portion of the building, to keep things from going off. The office half of the building has a deafening generator running at full blast, a few scattered office lights left on overnight last night, as if mocking my lamplit squinting.
But, the cleaners said, “How are you going to cook? Who is going to cook for you?”
I figured I’d get takeaway, hey?
“But you can’t eat takeaway, not after we have gotten you used to fresh food. It is not good for you.”
Eeeeeshh, I’ll survive. I mean, takeaway is basically all I eat at home.
“No, no, no. You can’t be eating chips and what-what. I have a sister,” Qubukile said. She already introduced me to her fetching youngest sister, who works for Schweppes, makers of Mazoe Orange Crush. She knows I like Mazoe. Her sister “just happened to be in the neighbourhood” last week, and came around, and met me on her lunch break. A beautiful woman, the same penetrating eyes as Qubukile; a crisp medium blue dress shirt with a flared collar and sensible skirt. I made awkward small talk whilst sitting in athletic shorts and a t-shirt hammering away at my computer. So that was one sister.
Qubukile broke in to my reverie, “This one is my second-youngest sister. I have 11 siblings, you know.”
Eleven siblings, potentially eleven separate matchmaking opportunities. Surely not twelve girls? Some must be married.
“She lives in town and has a car, and she will cook for you. I will call her.”
No, no, no – naw, that’s alright! I can make do for a night!
“Oh, no. She will like cooking for you. She will cook, and then bring it to you. I will give her the ingredients from the kitchen. She will make....spaghetti? With meat? And maybe mushrooms?”
She knows I like mushrooms.
“And then she will bring it over.”
I wanted to say – but she doesn’t work for me! And for that matter, you don’t have to, either! Qubu and Tia seem to relish cooking for me – it’s a day-ender after cleaning the offices across the hall. They come to my apartment, and sit in the chairs in the kitchen and bustle about, and half-shut the door and make animated conversation. On days I’m not around, they relish the satellite television that shows South African pictures on endless loops, one whole channel dedicated to those that feature magic – often the channel I find when I infrequently turn the set on. They cook for me, and it seems to be part of their job. The building manager sometimes ghosts into my apartment and hovers after they’ve left, asking anxiously, “You are enjoying their food? They cooked for you?” Oh, yes, yes, I say, it’s so lovely, but you know they don’t have to? I can manage. I’m used to managing on my own. I live alone! With a dog! To which he replies, “Oh, no, no, no, Doc. That is their job. They will take care of you.”
Confounded, I offered one more fumbling, feeble protest.
Ohhhh, but it’s such a hassle!
“It is no problem,” Qubukile said as she scrolled down her contacts list and walked out of the room.
A half hour elapsed as I continued to bang things out on my laptop, working quickly against the depleting battery. I looked up – and this happens a lot in my own home now – startled – and there is Qubukile, standing with a woman in a skirt-suit and glasses. “This is my sister,” she said, and I introduced myself with a thin smile.
Hellooo, I said, warbling a little. Uhhhh, sit down? –and gestured to the overstuffed dining room chairs on which there were stacks of books. They perched awkwardly, moving things around. Small talk ensued. “She works for Delta Beverages,” Qubukile explained, “And lives on this side.” “This side” could mean anything, as could “that side.” “This side,” in this context, seems to mean “in town.”
Beverages run in the family, Heh! Heh! I laughed awkwardly.
“Yes? Oh yes,” Qubukile politely laughed. “That was my youngest sister. This is my second-youngest sister. There are twelve of us. He is 36,” she pivoted abruptly, speaking to her sister. “He is a doctor, and he lives alone.”
I am 36! Heh. Heh. Heh. And yeah, just me and my dog. And in my family, it’s just me and my sister.
“That is niiiice,” Qubukile said, as there wasn’t much else to say, and no in-road for the sister. She pivoted again: “She is getting her MA in Accounting.”
Accounting! Well, that’s a good career. Everyone wants to know where the money goes.
“Yes,” the sister says, “at Midlands State University. I am almost finished. Next month.”
Oh, yeah. I went to Gweru two weeks ago. I pause. For the book festival? We all pause. It seemed nice, hey? I met some lovely professors from MSU there. Pause.
“Welllll, she is in the middle of work. She works until 5, and then she will cook for you, and come over at seven?” Qubukile glanced at her sister, who nodded equivocally.
I wrote down my number on a post-it note, and handed it to her sister. “I will call you when I am downstairs,” she said, making me feel all the more uncomfortable with this ‘arrangement.’
The evening continued, and shortly after they left, the electricity came back on. To celebrate, I answered all of my emails at once, binged on Facebook, and then turned on the television to a Step-Up movie, happy to veg out. Seven comes and goes, and Step-Up: Revolution continues (N.b. the Step-Up revolution is perpetual). I check my phone compulsively, painfully guilty that this whole thing is happening, and determined not to miss her phone call. Which I do, anyway, but only by a minute or two whilst puttering about the kitchen fixing hard boiled eggs for breakfast.
I call her back and flap down the stairs in my slops – flip-flops – and athletic shorts and novelty t-shirt, bedraggled and sleepy-eyed. I see her outside; she is standing in her car door. She smiles. Gone is the sensible but plain skirtsuit. Instead, a flirty white and black minidress, with flared skirt, slightly starched. She is wearing short heels, but white patent leather. She holds a white clutch adorned with gold studs. I stand awkwardly, smiling awkwardly, flapping my slops against my soles in place, awkwardly.
She holds out a pot of meats and vegetables, warm to the touch. I try to make small talk. How about that concert at city hall? I bet the traffic was pretty bad, immediately regretting it, worrying I made her feel uncomfortable for being late. She does feel uncomfortable about being an hour late and makes apologies. I realize idiotically that she was late not because work went late, but because she had clearly taken an immense amount of time making herself beautiful. It dawns on me that I might be expected to invite her to stay to eat, and of course I should, because she cooked for me, but I can’t, and panic is rising in my throat. The wind has cooled and whips jacaranda blossoms down around us. She shivers slightly in the breeze.
Heh! Heh! No problem, I say, trying for reassuring and kindly, but coming out pettishly. I am very grateful for you and your sister, and you having cooked for me. She grabs a neatly-tied bag with stacked Tupperware, and her clutch, and I walk us toward the building. Going up the stairs, I nervously accelerate, wanting distance between myself and this painfully awkward moment.
She pants theatrically for a second, “You are running!”
Oh, right, heh. Heh. I go to the gym, and ... uh... yeah, I move quickly these days.
We get to my apartment, and I unlock the three-part system. My living is a mess – scattered books, cigarette packets, pens, notebooks, laptop, tablet, more books. I steer her to the kitchen and place the still-warm pot on the counter. She sets things down next to it; she pauses, and sets her jaw, and then sets her clutch down before undoing the bag, and lifting out containers of steamed vegetables, creamed mushrooms, cooked spaghetti, enumerating each one, and at each one, I crow weakly. Oh, there’s more? Heh. Heh. How wonderful. “My sister made you coleslaw?” she queried, looking around.
She did, yes, and I’ve been snacking on it this evening, I said as she lifted the lid. The corners of her mouth tightened, “Yes, I am so sorry I was late.”
Oh no, no no no, it’s fine, I burbled, ready to repeat reassuring no’s for hours if need be. There are not enough hours for the no’s I feel compelled to say.
“Right, so, shall I serve you?”
Shall I serve you. Shall I serve you? There aren’t enough no’s for this, and there aren’t enough words to smooth over what is happening, that there is a beautiful woman in my kitchen who has been pressed into cooking for me, which is a definite courtship ritual no matter what society you belong to. I can’t, I just can’t, sit around my living room in silence making small talk with someone I have no intention of marrying, no matter how lovely and generous and gracious she is, and I’m in over my head, and these things happen, but there’s no knowing in advance how painfully awkward this will feel, and how this has never really happened to me, or at least I’ve never been aware of it happening. I have never been a “catch,” too neurotic and too finicky, and too oblivious and too aloof, too too too too.
No, no, no, no, of course not, I can serve myself, but oh, oh, thank you so much for cooking. You shouldn’t have, really, it’s too generous, I babbled. Your sister is so lovely, and I’m so lucky to have her around, and everyone in your family is clearly lovely and generous, I said. I moved ever so slightly towards the kitchen door, like by inches. She picked up her clutch and set her jaw. Right! I should, uh, show you out, as if the eight foot walk to the front door was a long trek after a long night and we were both exhausted and the door was somehow complicated.
She smiled woodenly as I fumbled with the three locks. Thank you, thank you so much, I said again. Really, it was so lovely. SO kind of you to do this, to which she replied with quiet reassurances, “Oh, yes, but takeaway is so bad, it was the least I could do.” I thought about giving her a kindly warning about the darkened stairwell, to be careful, but didn’t want to seem anything other than oblivious, and that seemed cruel, and there was also no way to do this without appearing to hustle her out anyway, and god, I thought, I hope she cooked something for herself, or held back some of the food just in case, and oh my god, she cooked for me, for us, and I am pushing her out the door, and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt quite so bad as this.
Well, it was lovely meeting you, I said. But I don’t think this is going to work, I didn’t say. It’s me, not you, I didn’t say.
Nor did I say, And it’s so late. Or, And we have to work in the morning, after all.
I couldn’t bear to hear her descend the stairs in her modest heels, tapping hollowly. I couldn’t stand there and watch her pull her car out into the empty streets and drive the deserted blocks home. I couldn’t stand to think about the fact that she might now have to rustle up dinner for herself, take the pins out of her hair, loosen the heel on her shoe, slide out of her dress. I couldn’t stand to think how bad I was at all of this – at saying no, at not accepting generosity I can’t or don’t know how to return. There are things I can’t say, and silences I can’t explain, either.
I have a friend here who is utterly unabashed in her flirtation with me. She knows it won’t go anywhere, but also knows she doesn’t have any filter. “I need to get in the swing of things,” she said. “To get in the game again. I have honoured the ancestors by staying celibate for now, but I don’t need to do that anymore.”
She likes my red beard (“like a pirate!”), my dad bod (“but a sexy dad!”), my strawberry blonde hair (“you are so, so...white”). I tease her that she just has a taste for the exotic, which she gleefully admits. She recounts to me all of the pale redheaded men she’s known – three, I think, including me. A German she’s working on, but who has no butt. The Germans don’t have butts. She asks me how a white boy has so much butt. She teases me that the gym will ruin my physique. She introduces me, generously, to friends, but always with a long prologue in chiShona that ends with an admission to me that she has told them all about me, that she has a crush on me. Her friends invariably confirm this, and at least one was awesome enough to look at me appraisingly and say, “Ehhhhhh, he is not so great.” I know where to find that friend, and I look forward to spending more time with her.
This is not quite the end of my second month in Zimbabwe. There are eight months to go. The cleaner has eleven siblings. There are known variables, and unknown variables. Known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, unknown-unknowables. There is a ledger of generosity, given, returned, not returned, with blind double entries. I will leave this place indebted although I come here rich.
“The only remaining member of the Newman family, old Ruth: mother of four, grandmother of seven, and great grandmother of twelve, all, all in other countries across the globe: was confined to a wheelchair. As they continued on their walk, the Boxes worried about Mrs Newman, alone in that house, old and infirm. They decided to telephone her once they got home, and ask if they could help in any way. Her number was in the directory, the only Newman left in Bulawayo…. ‘Please get off the line? Off! Get off! I vunt for to shpeak mit my son, the doctor!’ Ruth’s Yiddish accent was never far below the surface. Her husband, Paul Newman, had met and married her in Vienna, in 1934, and brought her back to the family home in Bulawayo, where the family had flourished until the late nineteen sixties when they began to feel threatened by the Schwartzen and, one by one, left. Only Ruth and her husband, Paul, stayed on, Ruth in Number 43 and Paul in the Jewish cemetery at Athlone. The remainder and the remains.” (John Eppel, “The Keys,” White Man Crawling)
Walking out of the university’s guesthouse one Saturday afternoon, I took a turn around the leafy, shady suburb of Khumalo. Not the Suburbs, which is another neighbourhood altogether, closer to the city center. At the end of the road, I hooked a right, and caught a Star of David out of the corner of my eye. Stirring stained glass, stars of David and menorahs, vines and olive leaves, all rendered in translucent, backlit glass. A long building, its roof rising to a central spine. Out houses, former servants’ quarters, a few pieces of laundry flapping on lines. Not a synagogue, anymore. I wonder how synagogues are decommissioned: are they boarded up, shut up, left, without a parting prayer? Or does the space need to be closed somehow, spiritually? Not a synagogue now, but a police station. Do you say the Kaddish for a space?
My grandmother worked for decades at the doctors’ building at Touro, the Jewish hospital in New Orleans. She was the nurse for a series of kind and generous doctors. When Leonard Bernstein visited New Orleans, he paid a visit to my grandmother’s boss for a check-up and check-in, monitoring his guttering lungs, blood oxygen levels. She was a devout Catholic, but felt at ease amongst people of any earnest faith. I wondered if she knew he was gay, too, a Communist of the old guard? Other, othered. Other of an other. Another.
In New York City, I always lived in Jewish neighbourhoods. When I moved to Brooklyn sight unseen, the only place I could afford was on St. John’s Place, in Crown Heights. Crown Heights, that storied battle-ground between orthodox Jewish families and black and West Indian families, coexisting uneasily since the neighbourhood erupted into violent riots in 1991, after Guyanese children were killed by the motorcade of the Chabad spiritual leader. The neighbourhood bore the fissures of the divide – there were blocks, like mine, that were black West Indian, the homes of public school teachers and the Trinidadian middle class. Other blocks had fallen into urban disrepair; and other blocks teemed with apartment buildings full of Jewish families. The life in the neighbourhood was West Indian, and every September there was a raucous West Indian Day parade. I could stand on the roof of my brownstone, amidst the herbs and vegetables planted in zinc tubs by my roommate, and look out to the screaming, singing, laughing river of Guyanese, Trinis, Barbadians surging down the street, belting out the latest island hits, hands hlding polystyrene containers of pigeon peas and jerk chicken and dripping roti. I packed up my wagon when the house broke up and rents soared – Geo to another house in Brooklyn, Catherine to the deserts of Arizona, myself to Washington Heights.
After Crown Heights, Washington Heights in Manhattan, another long-standing Jewish neighbourhood that existed inside, next to, among the Dominican families that had filled the neighbourhood in the 1960s and 1970s, creating generations of Heights-born Dominican families that filled the streets with the clack clack of dominoes slammed on tables, cigar shops where paterfamilias sat and shot the shit, blowing clouds of smoke onto Broadway. In the midst, Jewish mothers formed walking clubs, pumping their black-clad arms up and down the streets, gossiping and taking the air; the shul teeming with serious-seeming young men in hats and ringlets, all black all year round, shouting to each other in Hebrew for the basketball that they lobbed gracefully toward the hoop, unencumbered by their stiff jackets and tucked-in white dress shirts. Many of the buildings’ elevators, went automatic on Saturday, climbing up and down between the floors, stopping at each one each time. The 190th St A train stop had an grandfathered elevator operator, a black woman who carved out the corner near the panel with an improvised desk, pushing buttons up and down, earbuds in to cut the loud ambient buzz of the grinding gears. Saturdays were a marvel, and street-level apartments filled the neighbourhood with laughter and talk and prayer. Every year the rent on my studio went up $50 a month, and what was once reasonable was increasingly in line with a city determined to price working and middle classes out of its preserves.
Both of these experiences clashed with the strident and aggressive Black Israelites who set up shop on 34th St, in front of the Herald Square Macy’s, belting imprecations and thrusting out pamphlets. They seemed to belong to nowhere, not to the contact zones in the neighbourhoods I lived in, but rather flew in as though from outer space, to deliver dire warnings of sinfulness and forgotten apocryphal similitudes
In both places, I was a minority in minority enclaves, and a harbinger of the gentrification to come. While I lived in each place, it was, to bourgeois eyes, rough around the edges. “Food deserts,” bereft of adequate grocery stores. Awkward admixtures of check cashing places, and bullet-proofed Chinese takeout stores, bodegas stocked with beer, and soda, and cigarettes. By the time I left Crown Heights four years later, a Starbucks had sprung up two subway stops down at the frontier of white, twenty-something development. When I left Washington Heights, rents were soaring, the last “affordable” neighbourhood in Manhattan, “discovered” by white gentrifiers who had read the half-dozen piece in the Times extolling its convenience and “culture.”
Gentrification is just colonialism in softer terms. But how to understand the spaces that are lapped over time by successive waves of displaced peoples?
My friends the Schklars have folded me into the fabric of the young Jewish community of Chattanooga. Josh, with his facility with languages, is quickly becoming fluent in Hebrew, and their Sabbaths are observed, Friday night dinners with the lighting of candles and prayer. Bethany, the daughter of Christian missionaries, is delightedly entangled, and recently confessed she was converting. Would that be weird, I asked? To have gone from an evangelical Christian youth to observant Judaism? Not really, she said; after all, almost all of their friends were Jewish, and the good parts of faith are just good, any way you slice them.
At their parties, I chat with the gregarious emissaries of Israel, sent abroad to foster community and ties to the homeland. I jive with the goofy Sarah Brook, dry and funny and warm, and rib her like a little sister. I meet pragmatic and amused young Jewish people who have gotten quite used to explaining the differences in their faith to the church-going, Sunday-observant Christians that people our hills and mountains. Chattanooga is the “Most Bible-Minded City in America,” but that doesn’t mean they understand all of the People of The Book. Josh has stories from his work as a physical therapist, asked to be a cultural middleman for the occasional Jewish guest, explaining why the pained old man couldn’t be touched by a female nurse, or the significance of the prayer tassles peeking out from the bottom of his shirt. Their babby Noah is doted upon by all, was showered with onesies with Jewish themes, given a block table with cutouts of Hebrew letters.
In the middle of Bulawayo is another synagogue, announcing its presence with buttresses adorned with Stars of David in granite relief. It is now a roiling Pentecostal church, broadcasting its prayers into the streets with crackling loudspeakers, pastors warbling and bellowing, congregants shout-singing its praise.
Jane says that the board of the hospice she worked for was populated with most of the last community of Jews here in Bulawayo. When their synagogue caught fire, they rallied the troops and allies and sent them running, to put out the flames with bucket brigades.
In Kabul, on Flower Street, if you looked up in the right block, you would see a stone lintel with a carefully carved Star of David. A Star of David in Kabul. I asked around about it, and heard the story of the Last Two Jews in Kabul. Through the turbulent nineties and early oughts, each would hold services on the Sabbath, on the downlow, for themselves and any transplant that found themselves there on a tour. Their story is a wry allegory of Judaism’s penchant for minor disagreements; it was explained that the last two Jews were mortal enemies, having disagreed over some trifling interpretation of the Torah, nothing that should have caused an irreparable rift. They lived across the street from each other on this charmingly narrow alley populated with dusty antique stores filled with lapis lazuli, rusting 19th century artifacts, and roman coins. When one died, the other grudgingly gave a service, the only person qualified to do so. When he died, not long before I came in 2013, I wondered who might say the Kaddish for him.
I met Zandele at the Book Café to see her art – beautiful brightly-coloured techno-organic abstractions out of which peeked the merest shadows of heads, bodies, hills, breasts. Her bubbly son Nathaniel was with her; he had just gotten out of school for the week, on a Tuesday. His school uniform charmed, stern short pants and ironed button-down adorned with an embroidered menorah. A menorah, I asked her? Is there a Jewish school here?
Yes, she explained. It was long-established, a good private school amongst long-established Catholic schools once peopled with nuns slapping knuckles with rulers.
And is the curriculum Jewish? Are there any Jews here in Bulawayo?
There were two left, she said; she knew them by name, as did every parent at the school. They felt protective of the Last Two Jews in Bulawayo, their last lifeline to the faith that animated their school.
And is the curriculum Jewish?
It is Rosh Hashanah, she said, reminding me of the Jewish new year that always felt like the real new year to me. My life had for decades been charted against the fall-spring axis of collegiate semesters, the sweaty, saddening summers of waiting for the cycle to restart. When I taught at CUNY in New York, I learned to follow the high holy days: school was cancelled for the most important, and for the minor, I got used to announcing that students would be excused only if they asked to be so in advance, the onus on them. L'shanah tovah.
There are a lot of seventh-day Adventists here, she said, so they share a Sabbath, which is convenient. There used to be Jewish teachers here when I was younger, she explained, but they were all gone now.
So do the children learn Jewish history and culture?
Ye-es, she said, to an extent. It was now mostly boiled down to the Big Things, like the holy days ad Chanukah, the Sabbath and services.
Wow, I marvelled.
One of the last two Jews is about to give birth, she said, an event to which the whole school looked forward to. The children asked, Was it time yet? Had the child come? And the parents clubbed together to give a shower. They were waiting for continuity. Bated breath.
I flashed back to a few days prior, when from the second story of the bus to Gweru, I peered down and double-taked. There were two gentlemen in the front seats of a car, greying hair tucked under flat-brimmed black hats, grey beards grazing their chest, grey ringlets dropping in front of ears.
I think I saw them, I said! The fathers, anyway, in a small Japanese car puttering up Robert Mugabe Avenue.
Philoni, giving me my first walking tour of downtown, explained, “The Indian stores, man. They stick around. Even after 2008, they were still there. The Lebanese left when the economy crashed, but the Indians stayed. If they leave, we should all leave, because that’s the End Times.”
Down the road from the old synagogue in Khumalo, now police station, is the Hindu Cultural Center, not always the Hindu Cultural Center, but adorned now with an Om, set on generous grounds, with signs that proclaim “No Alcohol,” and v-divergent driveways that braid around a hexagonal building. It serves the Indian families that run towns in shop, importing goods from wholesalers in Kenyan ports. I don’t see cars there, driving past in the morning on the way to the university. But the gates stand open, welcoming all and sundry.
“Where is your wife? Do you have a wife? Where are your children? Do you have children? Will you have children? Do you cook? Clean? Tidy up? Where is your dog? Who takes care of you?”
Who takes care of you?
[“What would you like for lunch? Rice and chicken and vegetables? Stew? Soup?”]
In America, we make a fetish of self-care; it’s the neoliberal way: you’re responsible for you. You do you. I know plenty of bachelors and bachelorettes, and frankly, most of them have better life-skills than I do. I came of living-alone age living in giant cities, where cheap restaurants and prepared-food markets supplied me with all of my non-cereal needs. I still live like a graduate student. I’m thrifty, close-fisted, but curiously not when it comes to the extra expense of eating prepared foods, as opposed to cooking for myself. Boxed pastas are my friend, and I can knock down a box of child-delighting Kraft mac and cheese (I enjoy the Disney-shaped ones) in a single intense, mouth-gumming sitting. I can make a sandwich, and a mean omelette. I figured out shaksouka, and I enjoy following recipes for pies. I’m good at following directions, generally. Cooking meat scares me, and generally speaking so do leftovers (how long are they good? Are they stored healthfully? Will I die of botulism?).
[“Prof James? We should buy a cooking paddle for the sadza. And perhaps boxes to store food so that you will have food on Sunday, too.”]
Besides, I’m always tired. I work hard at work, and I get home to my dog, and play, and I answer all the emails I didn’t get around to, and finish up the writing I couldn’t finish at work, and read the small circle of websites I read, and watch the few episodes of the few TV shows I make do with online.
Besides, there are manifold financial pressures of bachelor life in America – the taxes, the credit card debt, car loan, car insurance, gas, health insurance, electricity, water, sewage, internet, cell phone, dog food. Cigarettes. Coffee. By the time all these have claimed their share, there’s little left. Produce and meat seem expensive, although I know they’re good for me.
“The middle-class everywhere complain about poverty; for some reason or other, no matter how much money they have, it is never as much as they are due. This is not an original observation, but on this trip it was being given startling new life.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
[“Please, Prof James? I need to buy onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage. May I go to the market to get these things?”]
Besides, I’m relatively healthy. I got over junior-varsity cancer (testicular; check yourself before you wreck yourself). There is diabetes and heart issues on both sides, but I inherited my mother’s impossibly low blood pressure, and in spite of the excess weight I carry, seem to be in no imminent danger of the sugars. I smoke, and that’s bad, I know, and I’ll quit, like everyone says they will. I have quit a couple of times, but it never seems to stick.
And besides, cigarettes suppress unwanted hunger.
“The couple I was visiting were both getting on, like me. They were in their sixties. They had retired from civil service jobs. Both were full of health, energy, and complaints. Their house was a large bungalow, many-roomed, with verandahs all around it, and it sat in two acres of land, full of fruit trees and vegetables and flowers.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
For the first month I was here, I stayed at the university guesthouse in the suburbs of this big city. It was me – and whoever else was visiting the school that needed a place to stay. A kind and genial radiology professor from the UK; a stolid and searching forestry professor from the Eastern Highlands; a snuffling, snoring, darting, bird-like Singaporean professor; a busy-busy big man from Harare who played tuneless white gospel music and prosperity gospel preachers from Texan megachurches.
And sometimes it was just me.
“This couple employed two servants, men… The servants cleaned the house, grew the vegetables, tended the fruit trees, laid the table, served the food. When we had finished they cleared the table, served the food. When we had finished they cleared the table, made coffee and washed up.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
But it was never just me. There was “Margaret,” the incredibly witty and loosely gregarious and teasing housekeeper. “DOKH-tah Zhjames,” she’d crow, loudly or softly, but musically and smilingly. She fell in love with the idea of my dog, Phineas. “Phineasssss. Such a nice name for a dog!” She would ask about him, sometimes I think just to see me get a little distant and misty. She taught me about mopane worms: to remove the flaky chitonous shell, to rehyhdrate them, salt and fry them, eat them with sadza. Although I still haven’t eaten sadza, because she was certain that I would want traditional foods.
[Panting, softly, “Prof, here is your change.”]
She worked all day, in fits and starts, sweeping mopping scrubbing; then draping herself languidly over corners of couches in corners of rooms just out of sight. One day, I caught a glimpse of her, feet up in the busy-busy big man’s desk chair, reading his discarded newspaper avidly. I caught her eyes and burst out laughing, and she shuffle-jogged into my room, and threw herself on my bed, guffawing at being caught out.
The washing line was always hung with clothes flapping in the breeze. She would leave and come back with armfuls of cauliflower. She painstakingly labored over ironing, and cleaned up the perpetual stains on the part of the tablecloth where only I sat. Evening meals were cooked in four, sometimes five, shifts. Mine first. Then hers; then the guardener’s; then the guard’s. Sometimes the guardener’s kids came in and cooked a later snack.
“The back yard, a space of bare dust enclosed by parallel hibiscus hedges, was a triumph of individualism over communal living. Eight separate woodpiles, eight clothes-lines, eight short paths edged with brick leading to eight lavatories that were built side by side like segments of chocolate, behind an enclosing tin screen: the locks (and therefore the keys) were identical, for the sake of cheapness, a system which guaranteed strife among the inhabitants. On either side of the lavatories were two rooms, built as a unit. In these four rooms lived eight native servants. At least, officially there were eight, in practice far more.” (Doris Lessing, “A Home for the Highland Cattle”)
[I just shuffled into the kitchen, and clumsily pouring water from the pitcher in the fridge, globules leapt out and splattered around my bare feet. “It’s okay!”]
At 7am, the university bus dropped off Mrs. Moyo. She had a kind, impassive face that cracked wide open into a smile when she was tickled by something, which was much more often than her resting face suggests. She also washed, ironed, mopped. She shuffled the paperwork, the receipts. She made the phone calls on the crackling line full of deafening static, and knew everyone in every office. She liaised with the transport drivers. She parceled out the monies for the shopping.
And then there was the guard-ener, an old man with a perpetually goofy smile. “Hohhhh-raity,” he said to just about anything, a common local version of a cheerful “Alrighty.” He teased me gently with his demeanor, looking down and away with his nearly-blind eyes when talking to me, but peeking at me intently with the corners of his eyes until I pulled his gaze upwards and he smiled. He has a family in Malawi, and children that stayed with him in the house behind the house, where “Margaret” also lived with her husband Clive.
The trash was emptied, and my scattered things realigned on an ageing, fading plastic serving tray. My clothing – my shirts, my pants, my tshirts, my underwear – was ironed and hung in the closet. Ironed underwear is a hitherto unknown pleasure, the stiff starchiness staving off swampass and holding up bravely against the sweat that trickles down my back. The bed was made every morning with tight hospital corners I had to wrench to squeeze under, just the way I liked it as a kid, cocooned tightly, pinned in.
“Everything in the house had the sparkling cherished look which is not often seen in Britain, where women work, or do not have the time for this level of housework. It is the look that goes with servants.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
When I was leaving for college, my mother taught me how to do laundry. Separate the colors and the whites. Treat bright colors as if they’ll always bleed pink into your undershirts. Stain remover in advance; detergent poured in first, then clothes, then a tiny wristed dollop of detergent on top. Clean the lint trap, always. Shake out the dense cold wet blobs of clothes, turn rightside out, throw in the dryer one piece at a time. Choose the correct setting, but better yet, never buy any delicates if you can help it. Never choose too high a setting unless you want everything to shrink. Let go, but at the buzzer, immediately pull the clothing that you didn’t want wrinkled – button-downs, pants. Shake them out vigorously and immediately fold. Stack into laundry basket, and return to closet.
She offered to teach me how to cook, but I shrugged it off; meal plan. She sent me to college with cups of Easy Mac and Hi-C orange juice boxes, which I would drink two at a time, granola bars. She didn’t come with to drop me off; instead, my father loaded the UHaul and we took the familiar route – I-20 to I-45, change to I-10 in the awkward Alexandria exchange before pulling across the interminable causeway to New Orleans. This past summer, my mother admitted, “I didn’t go to drop you off at college because I needed you to feel self-sufficient. I didn’t want you to think that I would always be there to pick up after you.”
[The two women in the kitchen laugh to each other in Ndebele. Pots and dishes clang into the sink and water runs and I hear the squick of the scouring pads.]
This past summer I was 36, and spun out into a regularly scheduled depressive cycle (three times a year, unlunar, signalled in advance by a growing sense of detached dread, a dulling of the colors of the world and a jangling of nerves). This time, exacerbated by the tumult of packing up my house to move to Zimbabwe, leaving my dog behind with my adoring colleagues, leaving dear friends. Bethany and Josh, and their little babby Noah, hosted me at least once a week since we became fast friends when I had just moved to Chattanooga. She cooked me pasta bake, and meatballs, and burritos, and breakfast burritos on the Saturday mornings I’d pop over to their house. And they threw me the most wonderful party when I left, quiche-themed, because I like quiche, and they love me. “I don’t mean this the wrong way,” Bethany began with a slightly raised eyebrow. “But when you’re in Zimbabwe, who’s going to take care of you?”
She would send me home with leftovers from dinner, to Josh’s protestations that he needed a lunch. I ate them 70% of the time, and the other 30% was haunted by their slowly mold-furring glistening. She knew that most days I heat up a Lean Cuisine, or grab fast food. “I mean, we have you over every week. Don’t get me wrong!” she immediately protested, raising a hand to God, “We love you! I’m just worried about you, that’s all.”
[Mr F wandered into the room, looking at the postcards I tacked up on the walls. He moved behind me, “You type quick-quick-quick! So fast!” I mumbled something in bemused agreement. He stayed behind me, I suppose reading what I’ve typed, squinting at the laptop screen.]
At the guesthouse, I would often perambulate the yard, peering into deep holes for hints of snakes, plucking peppery, hexagonal nasturtium leaves and chewing them, gazing up at the azure-breasted finches and iridescent doves and the scimitar-beaked bee-eaters and punk-crested woodpeckers. But I kept my transits limited to the left, the front, the right. Not the back.
There is a house behind the house. It was behind the driveway and carport. And behind a wall behind the driveway and carport. The kitchen had a half-door, the top half always open letting in scented breezes from the robust lemon tree in the backyard. I wasn’t meant to be in the kitchen, either, but I took to pouring myself water from the fridge, tucking away yogurt cups next to the wilting cauliflower or rooting out a teaspoon to stir up a cup of Nescafe.
“When Marina, a woman who took her responsibilities seriously…looked inside the room which her servant shared with the servant from next door, she exclaimed helplessly: ‘Dear me, how awful!’ The room was very small. The brick walls were unplastered, the tin of the roof bare, focussing the sun’s intensity inwards all day, so that even while she stood on the threshold, she began to feel a little faint, because of the enclosed heat. The floor was cement, and the blankets that served as beds lay directly on it. No cupboards or shelves: these were substituted by a string stretching from corner to corner. Two small, high windows, whose glass was cracked and pasted with paper. On the walls were pictures of the English royal family, torn out of illustrated magazines…
At home, I live alone with my dog. So never alone, but his purpose is emotional, not functional. I’ve lived with roommates throughout university, and all of my roommates have been better people than myself, which is a blessing for me, and an ultraminor curse for them, as my disorder crept around corners into communal spaces, and my low-key slovenliness meant I too infrequently scrubbed the tub or toilet.
My home in America is too big for me, generally, but it’s on the small end of American houses. That I have a house for just me is a luxury, I know, but I wander and mutter and sprawl and sing and talk to myself, I pump music while I write, and bellow show tunes. And my house is cheaper than most apartment complexes, anyway, and there never seems to be enough money.
There’s no such thing as being alone, generally, in Africa. (At the Open Book Festival, the Congolese novelist Fiston Muzila commented, “In Africa, there is no personal space. You are always on top of people, rubbing up against them, hearing them, smelling them. Sometimes when there is an electricity outage late at night in Lubumbashi, my mother says, ‘I am worried. Something is wrong. It is too quiet.’” Petina Gappah agreed, “The thing that makes an African city an African city is that there is no privacy.”)
I’ve certainly never had a housekeeper or cleaner, other than my mother. She was a housewife, and so the business of her day was not unlike servants’, although she didn’t get the little pay afforded domestic help. She says she didn’t mind, but I know I would have minded, staying at home cleaning up after children who were run around town every day for extracurriculars. Taxi drivers, janitors, housecleaners can form unions. Housewives? Even if she said it was fine, it doesn’t feel fine to me in retrospect.
[“We have finished the meal. Would you like to come serve yourself?” The rice. The chicken stewed in tomatoes, onions, pepper, oil. Blanched marrows, carrots, cauliflower. The Slaw of Competence, with hotel-precise shredded cabbage and tiny cubes of carrot and a light touch with the mayo, thinly sliced cucumbers scaling the top.]
“This was the hour of heat, when all activity faded into somnolence. The servants were away at the back, eating their midday meal. In the eight flats, separated by the flimsy walls which allowed every sound to be heard, the women reclined, sleeping, or lazily gossiping… Marina yawned. What a lazy life this was [she had]!” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
I was in the transient guesthouse for a month. It was perfectly lovely; the birdlife was tremendous, the stars on a clear, moonless night unsullied by the warm ochre glow of the city center.
But I was relieved to move to the apartment the university had been fitfully preparing for me in their downtown classroom building. It’s a marvellous old building, whose lobby whooshes cold air into the gritty street, and bathes the wifi-pirates, stockstill and alit with their devices. There is a terrifying elevator in the lobby, and the locals still call it PriceWaterHouse, with what I am sure is a capital ‘H.’ All of the streets in Bulawayo are lined with blue blooming jacarandas, but the ones on my street are spectacular, fed on the composting cast-off cabbage leaves from the produce market. “onedollaronedollaronedollar.” “Hey, ROONEY.”
(Everywhere in the non-European world that I travel, as a white man, I am likened to the most adjacent pale football player. I’m chagrined to have grown into a Rooney, when I was for one shining moment a Schweinsteiger, but everyone ages.)
[“We will go to the other side at half-past three?” she asked hopefully. “To get the sadza paddle and the lunch boxes?” I nodded eagerly, “Yes!” “You will be finished then--?” she gestured to my laptop, open on this screen, my books splayed around me, a half-finished glass of Mazoe and a pack of cigarettes next to me. “Ye-esss,” I said self-consciously, and then self-importantly, “I mean, no, the work never ends, does it?” I asked with a sick-making chuckle as I heard myself.]
The morning I leave, I’m sad. The flurry of the activity of the morning, throwing things into suitcases and boxes, shovelling wet toiletries into shopping bags, leaves me feeling conflicted; independence and a reclaimed bachelorhood in the center of the big city! But no one puttering around the house and teasing and flouncing. This morning, The Big Man is taking his time packing up his things, playing that weak, warbling, white gospel music in the room next door. “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo have committed to going with me to the new apartment – which they haven’t yet seen, but have heard of in great detail from the university grapevine. “It has TWO bedrooms!” Margaret crowed in the driveway, before rolling her eyes and jerking her thumb in the direction of the malingering Big Man, who is dragging his feet on checking out.
“It is niiiiiiice,” she said, drawling it out. “But we will MISS YOU.” She mimes kicking the ground and hanging her head. “It will be so looooooonely,” she crooned.
“I’ll have to have you and Mrs Moyo over for dinner. I will cook!” I said boastfully, thinking of the three dishes I could probably toss together, none of which have meats, and no meal has no meat here.
The Big Man finally leaves, and “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo climb gleefully into the transport truck, while the female driver, a relative, tucks a unspotted bromeliad under the tarp. All the way there, the driver tries to teach me Shona, while “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo have the chattering and irrepressibly schoolgirl air of an outing. An Outing!
When we get there, “Margaret” is impatient to find the janitor with the keys. We were a half hour late, so I’m reminding myself to be patient, even as she is chomping at the bit to get in. He lets us in, and the apartment unfolds. We open the first door to a sitting room with a chaise couch and large armchair. “Margaret” throws herself onto the navy blue sateen chaise, leaning on an elbow, giving cover girl realness. She mugs, and then her face falls, and she says softly while the janitor and Mrs Moyo proceed to investigate the bathroom, “But Dokh-tah…who is going to take care of you?”
“‘But I am afraid poor Anne has to do some of the cooking these days.’ ‘Yes, I am afraid it is a bit of a burden.’ Meanwhile my friends of thirty years ago complained. The Monologue, of course [about being unappreciated]. But they were also complaining about their poverty, their deprivation, and in the nagging peevish voices of spoiled children.
There was a Christmas day air – or, I shuddered to realize, a Boxing Day air-- while we unpacked my books and tucked them onto the shelves. The two women marvelled as I pulled out clothes they’d never seen from the bag I’d never unpacked. They fingered the clothes, admired. Some of the clothes still had tags on them; my usual wardrobe, I explained to them, was much shoddier, and I had to buy new clothes to come here.
Mrs Moyo admired the prices, too, knowing she’d pay the same for lower quality synthetic goods in the Indian shops, the Chinese shops. “Ehhhh, you are what, an Ex-El? Ex-Ex-El? My husband, he is an Ex-Ex-El,” Mrs Moyo said, with perquisites in mind. “Margaret” chimed in, “You are going to have to sell us these things before you leave, Dokhtah.”
Mrs Moyo looked thoughtful and said quietly to herself, “No, he will give them to us,” as she hung up an overdyed peach Target oxford. We worked for a bit in silence, me pulling things out, and shaking them out. I moved small things into assorted drawers, shuffled out to the living room, giving them a chance to whisper and marvel in quiet Ndebele. I waited a few extra beats to let them have it out before returning. I plopped down onto the vanity’s stool, rubbing my face performatively to signal something – I don’t know what, I was tired, too tired to help, not actually supervising?. It was short work, and they pushed the layers of dust out of the apartment, and arranged a coffee table and chairs in the kitchen. A coffee table and chairs in the kitchen? There was a square dining table in the living room with springed chairs.
[“How was the meal? Was it good?” he asked with a comically proprietorial air, rubbing his hands. “Yes, yes, very good,” I said patting my belly. “Good good good” he laughed, gasping. “You are lucky to live on the first floor, and have these ladies.”]
I took “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo to lunch at the art gallery. We perched at a bar table in the shade, and made small talk, pushed things around on the table. Mrs Moyo was impeccably sweet with the waitress, who in turn recognized a master of her trade and responded with absolute respect. I half-turned to “Margaret” but couldn’t quite make eye contact. I peered past her into the air above her right shoulder. I swallowed a lump.
“Okay, Margaret. I feel really, really bad. I realized a week ago that you have a couple of names.”
Mrs Moyo chimed, “Eh-LIZ-eh-beth,” and nodded firmly.
“Yes, Elizabeth,” I agreed.
Mrs Moyo said, “And Beh-lo.” She said it like “Beryl,” but if you rolled the ‘r’.
“Behlo,” I agreed, and Elizabeth nodded.
“But not one of your names is actually ‘Margaret,’ is it?” I finally asked.
She shook her head neutrally.
“But I’ve been calling you ‘Margaret.’”
She shrugged, “But it is a niiiiiiice name.”
I made equivocal hands; “Yeah, it is. But I should call you by one of your actual names.”
“Elizabeth,” she said, nodding.
“They sat blinking, unable to believe I could be so treacherous. ‘In Britain you’d have to be rich to live like this. Even in America, to have two servants, you’d be rich. Your way of life is an unreachable dream to ninety-nine point nine per cent of the world’s people.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
Today, I got two servants for my new apartment. “Servants” is the wrong word, a violent word, but I don’t understand how this happened, nor do I understand the etiquette for this. I grew up American middle-class – the world-historical 99% for what it’s worth – and I had a mother who cleaned our house, and cooked, and didn’t get paid.
The building manager (a better title than “Janitor,” which is what adorns his door) supervises a cleaning staff of two people per floor, women mostly, but men too. This echoes the arrangement at the university, where every articulation of the Great Conjoined Building has a different cleaner for each floor. The young woman wearing schoolgirl greens with the close-cropped hair and East African bone structure; the youngish man with scholastic looking glasses and suspenders who does hasty work; the old woman with a jutting front tooth, and charmingly multicoloured wig who sells biscuits in the courtyard at lunch for fifty cents.
The supervisor explains that the two women in front of me, whose names I couldn’t pick up, are the cleaners for the floor, and so they will clean my apartment every day. This wasn’t a question. I froze, unsure of what to do; I beckoned them in and proceeded to walk them through the apartment, explaining what was obvious. “This is the living room. I just put up those postcards… I hope the double-sided tape doesn’t give us trouble when I move out” I rushed, before giggling awkwardly and shrugging. Nqo--- (it pains me but I lose every Ndebele word after a click; I hear the click; I hear the click as a click, the tongue popping against the palate before fluently sliding into another syllable. This does not happen for me; my tongue gets stuck to the roof of mouth as with peanut butter. I go through this every time I hear a click.) Nqo--- gestures at my laptop and nods approvingly, “You are working hard, Doctor,” she said with none of the theatrical jokiness as “Margaret” did, but with no less warmth. “But you do not watch television?” She looked quizzically at the silent screen.
Nqo--- and Tvsi--- (it pains me but I lose Ndebele words after the sharply aspirated “tShh(eh)”. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton gives us a gentle lie when she pronounces Morgan Tsvangirai’s name as “Svhvv-ANG-ee-raI.” I practiced saying that for weeks before I came here, only to be confounded, then delighted, by the “tShh(eh).” tShee(eh)ng-ee-wry!) Nqo--- and Tvsi---- left to investigate the other rooms, and I heard the surgical PLOP of rubber gloves, and then running water. Mr. F stood there rubbing his hands together. “Would you like for them to cook? They will cook.”
Tvsi--- offers from the kitchen, “She is a GOOD cook!”
Nqo--- chimes in happily, “I will cook you lunch. You take us to the market, and we will get food.” I laughed “heh heh, yeah, I just have a couple odds and ends,” having bought most of the foods that would keep me minimally – yogurt, cereal, milk, juice, fruit; butter, bread. I wrung my hands; thinking in my terribly middle-class way that surely this must cost something? And that if it did, I wouldn’t mind? “heh. heh. Uh, sure? Uh—are we going now?” Nqo--- chuckled, “We are cleaning now. Then we will come back at twelve.”
“What would you like for lunch? Rice and chicken and vegetables? Stew? Soup?”
In Cape Town, all of the stores have roll-down grates, bars on windows, signs that proclaim “ARMED RESPONSE TEAM” with images of snapping Dobermans. At night the streets are empty, and more than once I was asked by concerned festival goers where I was staying and advised to “Walk safe.” The apartment was on the eleventh floor; there was a doorman downstairs. The front door had an extra iron grate that I was advised to keep locked at all times, even when I was home. The interior bedroom had another door, with a deadbolt. And in the bedroom, an ageing electronics panel that signalled that it was once an extra layer of security.
I used to live in this little yellow apartment in a little yellow apartment block just off Cross Street. The wooden floors creaked, the way wooden floors do.
I was once the target of a threat against my life.
In Afghanistan, there were guards. Three for each guesthouse; they split their time pacing inside the perimeter of nine-foot-tall walls or listening to the radio in the guard shack. A third was present nights, but would sleep rough on the floor of the guard shack. The Durawalls were topped with concertina wire. The streets around the guesthouses were left deeply pocked with craters and potholes and speedbumps and t-barriers forbidding straight-shots. Every window had bars, every bedroom additional locks. The guesthouses had panic rooms, and a designated building warden with a radio to the main security room on campus. A colleague remembered her own experience in a previous stint in A-stan, when she had to hole up in a basement for a full day, going stircrazy from jangled nerves and invented rumors. She had been glad to bring rubber exercise ropes to yank and stretch and exorcise.
Our security manager flagged me on campus one day. I was standing by the old greenhouse, behind my office block. “Are you enjoying your cigarette?”
“Yeah, I am,” I responded with a cocked eyebrow.
“And at the guest house, where do you smoke?”
“Ehhh, on the second floor balcony. More often, the roof. Sometimes, the garden.”
“Look, we’re going to have to move you.”
I was staying in the oldest guesthouse, but the one closest to campus; it was convenient; it meant that the university shuttle picked us up just before the final stop on campus, and it meant that we were usually the first people dropped off at the end of the evening, on the shuttle home.
“The guards were told that if the neighbours saw you on the balcony again, they would shoot you.”
My breath caught. “Seriously? When were the guards told this?”
“Apparently they were told this a week ago, and forgot to tell me.”
“Jesus. But doesn’t that mean they weren’t serious? I was out there last night, a week after they made the threat.”
“Yeah, but why chance it? Apparently they’re connected to a government family, and think that you’re spying on them.” (I am not a spy, but I am not gonna lie that looking out over the neighbourhood was a big draw to the balcony and roof.) “It’s just best that we move you.”
I took the day off from work, peeled down the postcards I had tacked up only two months previous. I shoved clothing into suitcases, and boxed books up. I waited for university transport to come and help me schlep a few blocks away to another guest house, which on the surface seemed a lot less safe, being on a busier street and near a minor embassy.
The office block I was housed in was, a few years later, the point of entry for a team of terrorists who swept into campus, past the students’ entry, past the ineffective guards. They riddled the office block with bullets, shattering blinds and glass, hitting flesh before storming the main classroom building, where they left more death behind them before the hours-long ordeal finally came to a close, several students and staff dead.
In the security briefing at the embassy in Harare, I was given a breathtaking slideshow on all of the procedures, the layers and layers of security built into every American residence. Any and every thing you can imagine. There’s no question that no chances are being taken, and there’s no question that these homes and lives are nearly impregnable. I raised my hand, wondering –what do I do? Will my home have any of these protections? All of these protections? None of them?
I thought, at least these guys could live in houses; in Kabul, the Embassy staff were housed on site and in nearby fortified camps, were not allowed to travel through town without an extraordinary entourage and many advanced permissions. At the university, we had comparative freedom, envied by some in the protected sectors of the Western shadow government. We relished it, but still played as safe as we could, going to restaurants that were vetted in advance by security, haunted places that had layers of guards and a good reputation. We cultivated relationships with local taxi drivers, like my Taj, who we could trust to drive us around discreetly. We notified security every time we left an enclave. It was mostly enough, but would also never be enough.
“Outside, the trees were swaying menacingly in the wind and the moon was covered by low-hanging clouds. The black wall of the forest seemed closer than Mr Adams remembered, as he peered from his window, but otherwise everything was quiet.
The curtains in my temporary room here keep falling down.
They had been jerry-rigged a half dozen times, dropping from a wire wrapped around a nail; the heavy fabric muted the cold that crept in on the tail end of winter. I also like to think they discouraged mosquitoes who may be daunted by the folds of faded flower print. They were utterly dysfunctional, and then, I suppose, even less so when they fell for the last time.
I keep leaving my door open in the guest house as I pad around to charge my phone, fix a Mazoe, find another perch to read from. Margaret walked by the room, peered in, gasped.
“Doctor! The curtains are finally broken. You must leave.”
I laughed. “My apartment is almost ready, so soon enough.”
“No, you must leave right no-owwwwww,” she intoned.
“Now? Why? It’s 7pm. All of my things are unpacked here.”
“Preciiiisely, doctor. A t’ief could look into the window, see you here. They will see all of your things. They will come in and murder you and take your laptop.”
“Well, my laptop was already stolen. This is the university’s, so I guess that’ll teach them to invest in better drapes.”
“They will kill you for the laptop, though. You must move rooms.”
“So these...thieves. They’ll be bold enough to break into a room they can see me sleeping in, but will be deterred if the room is suddenly empty. They won’t suspect that I’ve simply moved to another room? Is the guard extra sleepy tonight? Do you know something I don’t know?”
“If they are watching they will think you have moved out.” She plunked herself down in my desk chair, staging stubbornness.
“So I am to move to another room.” I’m irritated; I’ll be that much farther from the weak wifi.
“It is a nice room, though,” she wheedled.
“And you’ll help me move, all these loose things.”
“Yes, dokh-tah. We must do it now.”
The Theory of Oblivion, by the Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa, is about a woman scarred by her previous experience of violence. She moves with her sister from Portugal to Angola, into an eleven-story apartment building. There is a second story with a wrought iron spiral staircase; there is a terrace on which they plant fruit trees – pomegranate, banana, citrus. When the Angolan war for independence finally encroaches chaotically on Luanda, from the edges of the country, full of soldiers fighting under different banners for different causes – Cubans in favour of a communist redistribution of property; South Africans and Rhodesians to preserve a white state; American mercenaries seeking thrills and cash after tours in Vietnam rendered them unfit for official service; black Angolans desperately seeking freedom from under an oppressive colonial regime that impressed them into service for white Portuguese under the ridiculously false pretenses of invented debts.
“Turbulent days passed. Demonstrations, strikes, rallies. Ludo closed the windows to prevent the apartment from being filled with the laughter of the people on the streets, which burst into the air like fireworks.”
Ludo, who would prefer not to leave the apartment at all, anyway, initially finds comfort in their vantage, and lives surrounded by books and in the company of an albino German shepherd, Phantom. Her sister and brother-in-law seem poised to stay while the other white Portuguese fled.
Margaret came knocking on my door just now. “Dokh-tah,” she called softly.
“Are you a thief?” I shrilled jokingly.
“No-ooo,” she said as she entered, holding high a plug converter. “You can use this to charge your phone.”
I charge my cheap Zimbabwean phone on a singed power strip in the living room, where she often draped herself to be nearest the Wifi, and where the gardener sat while he charged his own phone, and watched European soccer games.
“You cannot just be walking back and forth in the house,” she chided. I rolled my eyes and padded barefoot behind her to the living room, where I have spent, would like to spend, a good deal of time, reading and writing and fussing on my lowest-end tablet, whose screen I’ve already cracked.
As she plodded ahead of me, she raised a finger in the air, declaiming: “PREVENTION! It is so much better than the cure, which is murder.”
“The first gunshots signalled the start of the big farewell parties. Young people were dying in the streets, waving flags, and meanwhile the settlers danced. Rita, their neighbour in the apartment next door, traded Luanda for Rio de Janeiro. On her last night, she invited two hundred friends round for a dinner that went on till daybreak. ‘Whatever we can’t drink we’ll leave for you,’ she said to Orlando, pointing at the pantry stacked high with cases of the finest Portuguese wines.”
Ludo has always “sheltered in place,” the kind of well-meaning advice given to those in the path of disaster.
I can smoke in my new room, which is something.
“In the first few months [in the Luanda apartment,] she did not even dare to approach the windows. ‘The African sky is much bigger than ours,’ she explained to her sister. ‘It crushes us.’”
Ludo doesn’t concern herself with the rationale for the Angolans’ revolution. And she doesn’t even necessarily fear them, in particular. She is instead haunted by a violence that she cannot set down, that she carries with her every day. It’s a personal fear, a personal violence, a personal history.
When her sister and brother-in-law disappear one night, and ersatz robbers come to the door of the apartment seeking rumoured wealth, her life catalyzes. She walls her apartment off from the rest of the building, locks her doors. She lives the next decades off of her wits, and gardening, and pigeons.
“One night, Ludo dreamed that beneath the streets of the city, under the respectable mansions in the lower town, there stretched an endless network of tunnels. The roots of the trees wound their way, unimpeded, down through the vaults. There were thousands of people living underground, sunk deep in mud and darkness, feeding themselves on whatever the bourgeoisie tossed into the sewers. Ludo was walking amid the throng. The men were waving machetes. They were striking their blades against one another and the noise echoed down the tunnels. One of them approached, brought his dirty face right up close to the Portuguese woman’s face and smiled. He whispered in her ear, in a voice that was deep and sweet: ‘Our sky is your floor.’”
These things happen.
In Agualusa’s Foreword to this remarkable novel, he explains
“Ludovica Fernandez Mano died in Luanda, at the Sagrada Esperanca clinic, in the early hours of 5 October 2010. She was eighty-five years old. [I was given] copies of ten notebooks in which Ludo had been writing her diary, dating from the first years of the twenty-eight during which she had shut herself away. I also had access to the diaries that followed her release, as well as to a huge collection of photographs taken by the visual artist Sacramento Neto (Sakro) of Ludo’s texts and the charcoal pictures on the walls of her apartment. Ludo’s diaries, poems and reflections helped me to reconstruct the tragedies she lived through. They helped me, I believe, to understand her. In the pages that follow, I have made use of much of her first-hand accounts. What you will read is, however, fiction. Pure fiction.”
These things happen.
Grace is “that absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving.”
The consistently most humbling thing about my continuous exercise of first-world privilege – by way of travelling, by way of going-to-places-I’m-not-meant-to-be – is that those who could and perhaps should resent me for this privilege, nevertheless exercise a hospitality that I don’t, in my (structural) position, merit. It’s a tremendous reminder of the ethos of hospitality that survives – even thrives, if my experience of the generosity and kindness of my Afghan students and colleagues is an indication – in the corners of the world where white/Westerners have historically abused it. Hospitality is a variety of grace – a goodness that exceeds expectation, a generosity that exceeds means, a kindness that exceeds merit.
“There is nothing more astonishing than a human face…. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”
As a thought experiment in my transnational/African immigrant literature class, I take the opportunity to ask my students whether or not America has a culture or ethos of hospitality; the answer is invariably a reflexive ‘no.’
I push further: what would it mean if we did? What about our culture would need to change? What would we need to be willing to do for an unknown other? What kind of reflexive generosity would we need to prepared to offer?
What stands in the way of our throwing open our arms, our homes, our lives to an/other, someone we can’t know in advance other than to trust our instincts to offer hospitality?
Religious faiths, ideologies, philosophies attempt to inculcate this – everyone you meet is the Buddha, after all, or Jesus, or another sinner or fellow-traveler or comrade.
But there’s an individualism, an absolute faith in liberty and autonomy, in the American cultural imaginary that frustrates the exercise of hospitality. There is also a lot of ignorance and fear, a willingness to believe that the Other is a reflexive threat, fed by a never-ending news cycle that thrives on generating terror. Terror sells. Hope is too hard to maintain, and we can be relied upon, it seems, to generate fresh horror on the hour, every hour.
We could shake off the overblown fears of loss of culture, the fug of competition, and fear, and anger. But it’ll take a supreme and collective effort. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the revered Madiba, Nelson Mandela, espoused a philosophy of Ubuntu – an autochthonous African philosophy of communal interdependence and ethics – in the wake of the violent, protracted, and venomous apartheid years in South Africa. And this philosophy – from the peoples of Southern Africa, including the Ndebele – understands that the strength of a people is in its ability to extend help to the least among us, and insist on the uplift of all, and which acknowledges that interdependence entails ethical attention to forgiveness. For all of the disappointment writ large in the reflections of Zimbabweans, for all of the heartbreak, the concern they have is a concern that does battle against cynicism, that insists on change. I admire this immensely: it is a country that hasn’t given up, and won’t.
“The people living here are poor. Their lives when the rail fails are hungry. But surely it is better to be poor here, in this sunlight, this beauty, than, let’s say, Bradford or Leeds. There ought to be different words for poverty that grimes and chills and darkens, and this poverty where people live in splendour, lifted up on to the Altitude into ringing windy sun-scoured skies.”
The biggest problem facing Zimbabweans today is a surfeit of Grace.
“International NGOs Too Scared to Aid Us, Grace Says.”
“Grace’s Insatiable Appetite for Wealth Is Shocking.”
“Grace Spend R45million On Mansion in Jo’Burg Suburb.”
“Grace Accused of Beating Jo’Burg Woman With Extension Cord.”
(Photo courtesy Toronto Star.)
I don’t agree with Lessing’s assessment; poverty and deprivation are poverty and deprivation wherever you find them. Certainly, cultural constraints and ideologies shape the appearance of poverty, its apparent palatability, but I don’t hold any truck with what Christopher Breu calls the “avatar fetishism” of the nobly suffering Other, or the trade in ersatz-third-world suffering, as I’ve made mention of in my own academic writing. Imagining that poverty is ennobling is a fundamental mistake, one that enables the status quo, and recirculates pain.
“My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand on one’s faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same.”
In a probing and critical essay, “Grace Mugabe and the Myth of Joyful Impoverishment,” Tafi Mhaka tackles this most pressing problem. He reflects on his own experiences of Zimbabwean poverty in the midst of a political rhetoric that defiantly claims that poverty is somehow a credit to the vigor and resilience of the country:
“I once visited a rural homestead in Murehwa for a brand research exercise and came eye to eye with frightening and unquantifiable destitution. A frail looking woman welcomed me into her humble household for half a day. My lone takeaway from that leisurely and warm-hearted experience was profound bitterness at how substantial and debilitating poverty has become in Zimbabwe. Perhaps this seemingly institutionalised deficiency is larger than politics? What kind of civilisation have we built so far when a few distinguished people have so much property and money and the majority have inconsequential material and monetary assets?”
He remarks that Zimbabwe has too little in the way of social services and a safety net for the impoverished and the elderly; for the rural and the poor. What kind of civilization, writ large, produces both the darkening, the griming and chilling poverty, and “this poverty where people live in splendour”?
Grace, by this other name, has come to figure an avarice, a bold and grasping self-celebration, an iron fist and a withering glare. Can grace be saved from Grace?
(Photo courtesy of The Southern Eye.)
You can’t just walk up to someone here and ask a question. I stopped into a tour agency office, hoping to locate a particular bookstore.
“Hi, do you know where the Indaba Book Cafe is?” I breathlessly asked a smiling woman with ringlets and glasses framing a round face. I’d been tromping around in circles where I thought it should be.
She looked at me, not blankly, and said, “Hello.”
I repeated, “Right, hi. Do you know where the Indaba Book Cafe is? I thought it was on this block.”
Once more, she looked at me: “Hello,” she said, kindly and patiently as if explaining something to a child. “How are you?” She inquired, tilting her head slightly in interest.
I felt the breath leave me for a second, and my sunpinked face flushed further. I took an actual deep breath, the kind that recenters and calms. I exhaled, and smiled; my shoulders fell, and I willed the tension out of my neck. I bent my knees slightly, feeling the change in posture change my attitude. “Yessssss,” I lispingly breathed. “I am sorry,” I said; more slowly, “I am well, thanks,” the scripts for kindness and interaction-with-strangers re-filling me from some primeval kindergarten brain.
She, too, relaxed further. “Yesssssss,” she said smilingly, “I am good. God is great, yeah?”
I heard the strains of shouted gospel music and rhythmic clapping from the Adventist church next door. “Yes, he is,” I said, feeling it more than I meant it, and feeling okay with that, too.
“What is your name?” she asked; “where are you from?”
“I’m James, and I’m from the US – from America.”
“Oh, how lovely! And how do you like Zimbabwe?”
I paused and smiled: “Quite a lot, thank you. Everyone is so friendly,” I said, and added shyly and slyly, “like you,” and smiled wider.
“My name is Louise,” and she grinned and extended her hand. Picking up the thread she’d let drop, she continued, “I know the place you are looking for; follow me,” as she led me back onto the street and into the sun. She waved and wove her hand, miming skirting the monolithic building at the end of the block, and walked me through precise directions to the Cafe. Of course it was exactly as she said – and of course it should be exactly as she did.
Grace abounds, even for the godless souls like me.
Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? .... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
I arrived in Bulawayo at the tail end of their winter, such as it is. It’s more impressive a winter than you might think, given any image of Africa you might have as either a tropical or desertified climatological hellscape. The weather at night turns a crisp, cold and on its worst nights, the wind comes whipping up the plains – of Matabeleland, not Oklahoma. The buildings here are built for passive heating and cooling, although their proficiency at either is yet to be determined fully. Summer – a longer season, roughly nine months of the twelve – is on the horizon, and to hear it told – and felt – it began today.
I applied for the Fulbright to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe because it has a long history – it was the gateway of the Ndebele people fleeing Tchaka’s (of Zulu fame) despotic wrath. And it was the vista from the incomparable Matobos Hills that inspired British imperialist Cecil Rhodes to establish a private mining concern here, a concern that morphed into the colony of Southern Rhodesia (named after him, naturally). He asked to be buried here, and surprisingly, given the rancor and violence with which white Rhodesians defended their country against black African independence – it’s still up there, the grave, looking down on the first major city in Zimbabwe.
But Bulawayo also has a long history of artistic and literary sophistication, home to the Cyrene Mission (from which was derived an enduringly popular visual art), a regional hub for the author Doris Lessing during her youth in Rhodesia, home to the country’s National Gallery and Natural History Museum, and home or birthplace of Zimbabwean authors Yvonne Vera, NoViolet Bulawayo, John Eppel, and others.
Bulawayo is also a minority-majority city, home to the Ndebele people, a 20% minority in a country that overall identifies as roughly 80% Shona. The tribes have historically been pitted against each other, in spite of unifying in their long fight for independence against white Rhodesians that ultimately culminated in the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. A young country, then, and the oldest town therein, Bulawayo has endured some pretty hard times, all told – especially considering it’s on the national government back-burner, which prefers to funnel money into the capital and other politically faithful towns. Throughout the 1980s, the majority government conducted a low-intensity and high-casualty campaign against the Ndebele, sowing ever greater distrust and fear amongst the Ndebele for the majority government. This erupted into politics at the turn of the 21st century, and Bulawayo became the center of an emergent opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Since then, Bulawayo has positioned itself as a fiercely independent and resistant space in the country, questioning ZANU-PF’s thirty-seven year tenure as a majority government.
Elections happen every five years, and the current president, Robert Mugabe, at the age of 94, is the oldest sitting statesperson in the world, and has publicly claimed that he has no interest in stepping aside, even as he wrestles with age and health issues. Thirty-seven years of power creates a tremendous amount of both momentum and inertia, and the vexing combination of both means that the upcoming elections in 2018 will, of necessity, be important to the shape of Zimbabwean politics to come.
It’s not terribly usual for literature professors to travel in search of literature – after all, books bring the world to us: such is their purpose and value, as records of ephemeral truths and vehicles of far-flung experience. But I’ve got a passion for travel, and a passion for travel in particular to the places where most other travellers don’t go. I taught for an ultimately ill-fated semester in Afghanistan in 2013, drawn there by my pacifism and my desire to see the workings of American Empire up close. It was probably an ill-considered decision, but I learned a lot – about American empire, about myself, about the value of the ideology of education and intellectualization. It has been impossible since to walk back those epiphanies – that education is incredibly impactful, the most potent force for the realization of freedom, equality, and justice.
The bus ride from Harare, fully six hours long (Africa is much larger than any map we’re familiar with represents it as), took me through a rusty, rocky, jutting landscape. An hour passed between remarkable towns, remarkable, mostly, for their ability to survive in this bone dry, elevated plateau. Kadoma. Kwekwe. Gweru.
Even in the cooler breeze of winter, I sweated in the double-decker bus, and strained my eyes, when it didn’t make me nauseous, for glimpses of anything worth remarking. I won’t lie, I was looking for exotic fauna, too, although they undoubtedly know better than to hang out anywhere near the one major highway cutting across the center of the nation. And contrary to the image one might have of Africa – as of wide open spaces, unbroken horizons, full of sky and burning land – it’s marked out and fenced just like America is, as glimpsed from the highway. More than a hundred years of colonialism, capitalism and private property have irreparably taken root, limiting, as we know, the ranges and spaces in which the charismatic African fauna can roam, confining them to the protected open spaces of national and game parks.
We pulled into Bulawayo, a gridded and bustling city, the regional hub for industry and commerce – or at least it was, until economic fortunes changed dramatically for the city, and the larger country, in the 21st century. Four faux-nuclear-cooling-towers (coal plants, it seems) tower over the edge of the city, whose skyline is broken by scattered, anomalous high-rises, all testifying to its importance, once, as a center of industry. Anywhere between 600k and 1 million people live here; the former is the government’s low-balled census number (determined, as it were, to downgrade the city’s importance), the latter the number that opposition politicians cite. Either way, there are certainly far more people on the street in Bulawayo at any time than there are in Chattanooga, proper.
The city’s architecture is a mix of buildings that wouldn’t look out of place on the mission coast of California, or the Victorian quarters of an English city, or the midcentury angular experimentation of once-thriving Rust Belt cities. It’s a random mix, but not without charm, even if it’s suffered pretty intensely from neglect and sometimes-explosive poverty.
But there are some buildings that are like time capsules, including and in particular the National Gallery of Art. A two-story building, painted red with white trim, its ornate balcony railings borrowed from the Victorian style of Cape Town, and which wouldn’t look out of place in New Orleans. It has a charming open-air courtyard, where a chic new coffee shop sprawls into the blue-bright glare of the cloudless sky. To one side is a two-story building, replete with a dozen studios for local artists to work and host buyers, students, and critics. It’s precisely the sort of place I love: full of art, full of history (it was built at the turn of the 20th century), but most of all, full of the memory of literature.
For many years, Yvonne Vera, the lyrical, ambitious, and avant-garde Zimbabwean writer, was the curator here. Her tenure in charge is remembered fondly by all as a high point in the institution’s history, and she was a tireless advocate for artistic production and preservation, a steward to the unique cultural traditions of the town, and a local human repository of memory for the city. When the eminent historian of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Terence Ranger, decided finally to approach Bulawayo as a subject, he tipped his hat to, and started with, Vera’s fictional account in her novel, Butterfly Burning.
Vera’s novels range over the full modern history of Zimbabwe, variously touching on all of the important eras, from the first Chimurenga (roughly glossed as <righteous conflict> or <revolutionary struggle>; 1894-1897) against white imperialists, through the resource plunder of Zimbabwe while a colony, into the difficulties of the Second Chimurenga (1966-1979) against the Rhodesians, and into the turn of the 21st century. Her novels are wrenching, and disorienting, and stand out in a field of literature that has been, and still largely is, dominated by social realist novels in the Chinua Achebe tradition.
Vera’s novels are wrenching and disorienting, replete with ruefully casual violence, and dwelling uncomfortably on trauma. In December of 2016, I travelled to the Harry Ransom Center Archive at the University of Texas-Austin, a famous collection of very important literary manuscripts, with heavy concentrations on 20th-centry British and African literature. They have a larger and more complete collection of Doris Lessing’s correspondence and manuscripts than found anywhere else. And buried amongst the papers of the African literature scholar Charles Larson is a small cache of papers of Yvonne Vera’s –letters and emails, copies of essays and articles, handwritten notes, and Terence Ranger’s eulogy for her. Most remarkably, though, when Vera died in 2005, she left behind a nearly-complete manuscript, now archived amongst Larson’s papers at UT, named Obedience. This novel begins with the uncovering – and plunder – of the stone birds at Great Zimbabwe, a kind of ground zero for colonialist appropriation of ersatz-“primitive” cultures that characterized the “cultural labor” of colonialism.
Archives can – in their best moments – yield precisely such gems: unfinished work, notes for projects that were never realized, casual insights into literature’s composition. Although Larson wanted very much to publish the novel – and corresponded with her husband about her planned revisions – and Sarah Kastner worked with the manuscript for her MA thesis, “Writing Against Possession: Archiving Yvonne Vera, and the Obedience Manuscript,” the text is still not available outside of archives. It remains, therefore, a tantalizing promise of what could have been, as well as a novel in situ, waiting for its hopefully-eventual publication.
Although Vera passed in 2005, her mother still lives in Bulawayo, and it seems that she has taken up the banner of her late daughter. She has compiled a biography of Vera – the only one, I believe – and also become a writer in her own right. I hope to meet her, to let her know how important and impactful Vera’s work has been, is, will be – that she has been and will be celebrated as one of the most important and idiosyncratic voices in all of African literature. I don’t doubt her mother knows this, of course, in the way that mothers do.
I’ve always loved literature, and by extension, those writers who have poured their blood and sweat into these texts that give me life, but I’ve always been sceptical of the Romantic notion of the isolated, tortured, god-appointed ‘genius.’ It’s a holdover from less egalitarian times, this idea that some people are uniquely imbued with otherworldly powers of expression that render them godlike among men. My investment in materialist philosophy inclines me to want to believe that people are made, shaped, formed; they push and are pushed; they stretch and snap back; and around all of us swirls a dense cloud of ideologies about the world that allow us to understand ourselves as ourselves, and the world as the world – and that that fact means that we all inhabit different registers of experience in and of the world. Short-hand: poststructuralist materialist Marxist.
Nevertheless, for the same essential reason that people make pilgrimages to the Land of Mickey in order to asymptotically approach the impossible Disney fantasy through hyperconsumerism... I want to be where the writing was. I want to see – want to see them writing, see them writing on – what do you call those? Desks?
I’ve seen Marcel Proust’s recreated bedroom in Paris; the tree under which Lawrence Durrell wrote his Mediterranean travelogues in Northern Cyprus; the towering pine tree that DH Lawrence stared out of the window at in Taos, NM; Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables; Stein’s and Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s and Joyce’s Shakespeare and Company; Larry McMurtry’s Archer City, Texas; Amma Darko’s Agbogbloshie Market in Accra.
When I’m feeling uncharitable to myself, I think: what are you doing? What do you imagine you’ll find? The writing is over; the book is in your hands; the text is what lives, such as anything can be said to ‘live.’ Give up the search, enjoy the book, accept that that time, that place, that moment, that person is gone, and it is precisely the text that remains when nothing else does.
On the other hand, I think – here is a city, Bulawayo, somewhat frozen in time, haunted by its past and uncertain about its future; unupdated since 1980; slowly decaying under the whiplash of the wind, the abrasion of the ruddy dust, the weight of history. Toni Morrison was right, you know, when she described “rememory” in Beloved - places that have seen life, and history, and violence and death and trauma and pain and love and joy and fear, record these feelings in their bones. And their bones are the width of the streets of Bulawayo, designed to allow a full complement of oxen to effect a U-turn in the middle of the street, and streets which are still used for this effect by hand-me-down double-decker buses shuttling people between the blasted capital and the buffeting winds of Bulawayo. And the bones are those ornate white railings of the National Gallery, chipping paint now that Yvonne is gone. And the bones are the corner public library, whose stock of schlock fiction and time-warped classics impresses. And the bones are in the stout and flaring coalstacks on the edge of the ridge that once intentionally separated the ‘native’ town, Mzilikazi, and the rest of bleached, whitened Bulawayo arraying themselves in the orderly grid, out of plumb with north and south, but arranged on lay-lines of topography and romantic imperial visions. And the bones are in the irrepressible warmth of a people who should, by logic and experience and history, be sceptical of my wondering and wandering eyes, but haven’t. All of these places contain layers of life and lived experience, the residue of our bodies and the signatures of our sacrifices.
...to the first Fulbrighter to win RuPaul's Drag Race: Sasha Velour (rrrrrrrrrr)!
Fierce and erudite, Mx Velour kept the whole season thoughtful and intellectual, actually deploying her experience living and studying in Russia on a student research Fulbright to explain the difficulties that gay men face abroad. Mx Velour was a wonderful in-show historienne, making note of the impact of drag, pointing to its various evolutions, and always staying ahead of the curve as she also served as a repository of knowledge. Her Graciousness was incredibly gracious, to boot.
All hail Queen Sasha Velour!
"Yes, ma'am, I'll take that dollar:
doesn't even matter I'm a Fulbright scholar.
I'd rather be modest, but I need to show it:
There's a lot of pretty girls, but a Queen gotta know shit."
Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.