Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stanley Nyamfukudza and the Zimbabwe of the early 1980's

(Memory Chirere's reflections)
For Zimbabwe, turning thirty brings unbearable memories of 1980. But, maybe, for us interested in Literature the joy is also in picking, sometimes at random, on any book or story based on the feelings, thoughts, promises and revelations of around the independence period 1980.

One settles on Stanley Nyamfukudza’s 1983 collection of short-stories called Aftermaths especially those that go beyond celebrating 18 April 1980. These stories by Nyamfukudza dwell on “finer” reactions to independence. They explore various emotions, expectations and some anxieties of a freshly independent people.

In that context, you cannot also avoid the fact that during the struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe Stanley Nyamfukudza went to exile in Britain. He was part of the 1973 University of Rhodesia black students who were imprisoned for protesting against racist policies on the campus and the whole country. Some of Nyamfukudza’s contemporaries in this act have become prominent names today in different fields. Among them the late politician Witness Mangwende and fellow writer, Dambudzo Marechera.

This generation went to exile or crossed boarders into Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana to bolster the nationalist war of liberation. Aftermaths is exciting because some of the stories here are decidedly based on the ‘the return’ home of the exiles and fighters around 1980.

In the title story “Aftermaths” a “returnee” goes down his boy-hood street in the location trying to reconnect. He tacitly takes a mental register and inventory of the township houses and folk. The signature of time is plastered on the walls of the township and although there is an air of carefree, a sense of tension is discernible.

The “return of the native” is generally a fascinating theme in Literature.

Many stories in Zimbabwe are told of the ex-combatants who threw large parties on their return. Their people wanted them to sing the war songs, to crawl on the ground as they did in the war and to sneak through the bushes and disappear as they were reputed to have done during the war. Many who returned from exile boasted about their impeccable English, German, Swiss or Swahili.

Time and experience had created a certain unbelievable social gap between those who had remained at home and those who had “gone away.” Nyamfukudza’s persona feels “robbed, childishly but painfully.” One takes note of a hazy suggestion that this is a community that has gone through a shock and soon there would be time to stand up and be normal again.

Maybe Nyamfukudza’s most dense and poetic story of the new 1980’s era is “Settlers.” It is apparently based on the earliest Zimbabwe’s resettlement programme. A young man and his pregnant wife find themselves clearing up dense bush to set up home and field.

Looking at his own circumstances, the man is overwhelmed. The Zimbabwe revolution had delivered a first, offering virgin land to the formerly dispossessed peasants:

“Sometimes, in the morning, standing there with
his pick, shovel and axe on his shoulders, it
seemed pointless, mad even. How could one
man and woman fight against all this thick
forest, sustained only by the dream that if
they kept at it, they would in the end claim
some room…”

One cannot escape from the “garden of Eden” feeling evoked by this story. By extension, husband and wife are Adam and Eve, respectively. The whole metaphor extends to the new nation state of Zimbabwe. Reading on, one recalls the heavy rains of the first Independence summer season and the subsequent bumper harvest. The phrase “Zimbabwe the bread basket of Africa” stuck as people flocked from “tired” territories in Masvingo, Madziva, Chiweshe, Gwaai… to open up heavy virgin tracts of fields in Muzarabani, Sanyati, Gokwe... Indeed “swords turned into plough-shares.” All of a sudden one wanted to be useful, to dig a hole in the earth and rest like some kind of a veldt bird.

Sleeping, working or walking, husband and wife “felt they were intruders, fenced in by a forest which just stood there, as if watching and waiting…” Implicit in the references to the flora and fauna is the plunder of nearly a century that had made a people stranger to their own space. Colonialism raptures spiritual connection between men and his heritage.

But the fecundity overflows into the human world in this subtle short story. The man likes to sit by the fire-side “watching her (wife’s) by now faintly swollen belly as she moved about in the small, smoke filled kitchen, preparing the evening meal.” The young wife’s pregnancy creates a sense of continuity and celebration which typifies 1980.

The forest in “Settlers” is however not that new or impenetrable. Physically and spiritually this is a place that leaves one with a feeling that one has been here before. Only one does not know exactly when and why.

Nyamufukudza also dwells on the other part of the miracle of 1980: the massive journey back to school. After the war old schools reopened and new uncountable ones sprouted. They were called ‘Upper-tops’ but even the derision in that title was thankfully ignored. Old tobacco barns became schools. Old churches became Adult literacy spots. Under the big Baobab tree a black board was erected, a teacher was found and a school was founded! Someone thought the old Rhodesian camp could be put to some good use and a school was founded. Men with beards and women with protruding breasts put aside the war memories and went back to school! Minister Dzingai Mutumbuka traveled the length and width of the country preaching, coercing and opening schools.

In the story “A fresh start” there is captured a small school in the middle of a rural community that is emerging out of war. Everything about the school is small, makeshift and experimental. One classroom block, three teachers who stay in thatched houses and pupils who wore neither shoes nor uniforms. Everything has the magical touch of “a fresh start.” The major character in the story is a teacher from the urban areas who happen to have a soft spot for the rural and the natural. For him “the lack of amenities, basic books even, seemed hardly important.”

The scene, typical of the rural Zimbabwe 1980, is set for adventure. After the war, communities tended to be inward looking. The basics first, seemed to be the dictum. A people had to have at least several shops, a bar and a grinding mill at the “growth point.” Then people needed a deep tank and a small school for a start. The teacher in “A fresh start” is part of the spirit of educating the nation. His pupils are his family. They keep a distance of respectability as he shares with them his knowledge and sometimes his own food. They respect and revere him and he knows it. The parents fraternize with him, always using the word “teacher” before his name.

But part of the fresh start here is that the teacher stumbles into a very beautiful woman who has sadly been maimed mentally in contact in the previous war. As he takes in the wonder and the beauty of the river, one day, she strays onto his hideout and he cannot believe there could be such a beauty out here.

The teacher goes through a restless panic. The ugly side of the just ended war is typified by this very beautiful young woman who will never have her mind again nor speak. The message that the war was a give and take and not romance gradually descends on the teacher. In that reawakening, he is first “sad and thoughtful” and later settles on the seemingly personal but national project. “The children looked up at him expectantly. He cleared his throat… were these the only available redeemers, if he was to recover from the rigours of apathy and jaded hedonism?”

Nyamfukudza captures the feelings of the times with a touch that is very personal and eternal. He has a certain sympathy for people that does not allow him to easily paint them right or wrong. Nyamfukudza leaves you feeling that individuals in their private endeavors represent the scattered conflicting sensibilities that make a nation.

Aftermaths is a natural sequel to Nyamfukudza’s war-time novel, The Non-Believer’s Journey

Tudikidiki By Memory Chirere

Below are three articles/reviews on Tudikidiki:

1.It would be very easy to read many meanings (probably all of them my own!) into Memory Chirere’s short - short stories (some of which are really vignettes) and I suppose the writer could be laughing down his throat at the mental gymnastics of even the most well meaning readers as they try to ‘interpret’ these ‘little things’.

As I read them I am at times persuaded not to try to find any meaning in some of them but to simply read, read, and enjoy – or be frustrated.

Both enjoyment and frustration arise out of the realization that Chirere’s characters (and maybe the reader as well?) are involved in a very serious mind life games. A mixture of a kind of madness, a passion for unreason and a stumbling in the darkness of sheer ignorance but with always a hope (groundless?) of a light at the end of the grotto. A kind of natural intelligence which is also mixed with unadulterated innocence?

Take the story ‘Mwana’ – what is the writer trying to say? Is it about how we wish for something dearly, then our wishes become obstacles and at the end we have to run, with nothing, into worse situations?

The story ‘Amai nababa’ shows the innocent wishes of a child who is dying to see her parents together, in love, (and herself included in this love?) and she achieves this in her own way but behind it all you are worried about the presence of other forces that have nothing to do with the three characters.

‘Roja rababa vaBiggie’ – could this be vintage Chirere? This ‘roja’ looks the acme of decency and diligence in the local community. He seems to be an assert to his landlord, (or his owner?) baba vaBiggie. People envy baba vaBiggie for having such a quiet and hardworking lodger.

How wrong can we be! The man, this ‘roja’ is cooking up something. Baba vaBiggie owes the ‘roja’ and now the roja wants his money back. To get his money back, he climbs up to the top of the tower light and tells the world that it is his money or he is going to throw himself down to his death. The man performs monkey dances on the tower light. He shouts and he has got everyone’s attention. He is in charge today. He is in full control and the people are looking up there, in awe, enthralled, in fear, as if he were – God? And he seems to love it. He is reveling in it. (I have a feeling that he has never felt such strength, such power, in him before and he wishes it could go on forever, this moment of total control).

When he finally agrees to come down, after baba vaBiggie has paid, to a trusted third part, one feels the tragic moment, the fall of a God.

‘Chichena chirefu chinonhuwira’, ‘Pikicha’ and ‘Pamuroro wemwana’ again have ‘something’ which is haunting. People create situations over things they don’t understand, and the end result? Panic. Chaos. Very small things which could have been resolved quietly or peacefully become big issues that lead to the cracking up of personalities and the breaking up of communities and institutions. People become victims of their own actions.

We have the painful heartbreak in ‘Ariko’. A broken, unconsummated relationship, the unsaid deep pain of parting, the imagery cuts to the quick.

‘Mumwewo munhu wausingazive’ has a very strange nostalgic effect on the reader, especially this one. How can you not suffer if you live, daily, with the uneasy, unresolved thought that somewhere out there among the denizens of the world there is someone who has a heartful load of love for you, someone ready to die for you? (It is rather a mischievous short story, designed to play havoc with the reader’s emotions!)

‘Ndikakuregedza handizokuoni’ verges on the – magical? Too good to be true. Our own emotions, intentions, dreams – our individual lives – align with God’s designs and we feel responsible for the salvation or destruction of whole nations. This story, as in many others, seems to reveal some dark mystic? – definitely spiritual-religious compartments in this writer’s psyche!

All in all, Memory Chirere’s Tudikidiki is an enjoyable collection. I sense a new direction in the Shona short story, releasing it from the usual hidebound traditional oral rungano, to throw it in line with its written counterpart in the other, international languages, but the flavour is strictly here, now, homegrown and home brewed. Even though a few of these stories left me feeling that they verge on the obscure, I still have a nagging feeling that maybe it is my own lack of access to the writer’s artistic lexicon. Whatever the case is, these stories don’t fail to tickle your rib, if not riddle your mind. These are serious adult stories (despite appearances to the contrary) written with a poet’s sensibilities.
(By Charles Mungoshi, The Sunday mail, December, 2007)

2.Memory Chirere’s second book called Tudikidiki is a good Christmas and New Year’s present for all the connoisseurs of Zimbabwean literature. Reason: save for the multiauthored collections by Zimbabwean Women Writers, the short story in the Shona language is almost non-existent.

The space is heavily dominated by the poem and novel and yet the short story in English is on a massive rise in Zimbabwe.

Tudikidiki is heavily influenced by Chirere’s first book, a collection of short stories in English called Somewhere In This Country. Here as in the first book, these stories are flittingly short. Reading, you remember Flannery O’Connor: ‘A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning’.
Coupled with very high entertainment value, the whole booklet can be read on a bus trip from Mbare to Murambinda! Each story stands out clearly and the experience is akin to toying with one crisp biscuit after another, after another, in one’s watery mouth!

Some of these stories are teeming with both serious and petty fraudsters. The lesson is: Do not be too engrossed only in the big struggles of survival. Turn your head over your shoulder to check what the next man or woman is doing. You are being invited to pay close attention to the little matters of life -Tudikidiki - and to laugh at yourself, if you can.

Mandiziva, a character in the story by the same title, is a township old man who walks up to any home and plays at being a no nonsense long lost old relative from the rural areas. As a result he is entertained like a king. When the neighborhood wakes up to the truth, Mandiziva is long gone, well fed and comfortable.

‘Mamboonawo Mhuri Yangu here?’ is an Aesopean tale about looking for someone who could be looking for you! And when you get to where he was, he is where you were, and because you put so much faith in speed and accuracy, you might never meet with the person you so much want to meet!

In ‘Roja Rababa vaBiggie’ a township lodger teaches the whole community a lesson that they will never forget. More stinging blows come in Pempani Pempani, Pikicha, Pasi Pengoma and many more. The laughter generated by these stories is corrective. The journey of life is portrayed as both awkward and funny and the man or woman who listens carefully to her soul, wins. Chirere’s wit is honey coupled up with grit and the conversations are dreamlike and childlike.

As Ignatius Mabasa warns in the introduction to this book, these stories are not for children, but are about children. So they can even be read by both adults and young adults. Yet you come away feeling that the word ‘children’ is more complex than meets the eye. The struggles in life bring out the most basic instincts, making us all children.

Memory Chirere is at his best with stories with subterranean meanings and you might be caught reading and rereading these stories for their various levels of meaning and wit. I have come across this in the few stories of Langston Hughes.
(Reviewed by Jairos kangira, The Herald, 10 January 2008)

3.Chenjerai Hove recently read Memory Chirere's short story collection "Tudikidiki". He made the following observation, shared in an email to both Chirere and me. Hove has stated repeatedly that the current state of writing by new writers in Zimbabwe makes him proud, especially considering that he has been a mentor to most of these contemporary writers. Chirere, for instance, was in the class Hove taught during his days as the writer-in-residence at the University of Zimbabwe.Other writers like Ruzvidzo Mupfudza, Ignatius Mabasa, Cleopas Gwakwara, Nhamo Mhiripiri and wife, Thabisani Ndlovu, Eresina Wede, Zvisdinei Sandi and others were part of this group. I too had the priviledge of learning from the master in those days, and every now and then we spend time on the phone discussing literature and our common homeland, Mazvihwa, a place rich in history and memories. Hove is currently based in Miami, Florida.

Below are some of his comments on Memory Chirere's "Tudikidiki", reproduced here with his permission:

Chirere's talent is his capacity to capture character and landscape in most apt way, with a phrase or a simple comparison. He is one of the most observant writers ever to emerge in our cruel, beloved homeland. When he compares something like 'semugoti wepanhamo', the images are vivid and he is able to interconnect them into building a strong character in such a short space of language and time. Poetic juxtapositions like, 'chawaitanga kuona pana pembani idzoro rake rainge nhanga, wozoona marengenya' are just breath-taking in creating a compendium of physical looks and the poverty that went with the character of Pempani. If you also look at Pempani's bio brief, it is wonderfully done as the way in which rumours often paint a complex character is used to show the Pempani's complexity as a person and as a piece of social upheaavals. Then the narrator says in his own assessment of Pempani, 'Ini ndaingoti zvese zvaiita,' without validating or refuting any of the pieces of speculative portrayals.

Chirere has this subtle sense of detail, a poetic quality which makes his writing uniquely his. For example, if you look at how he portrays the manner in which music inflitrates the human consciousness, in 'Kamwe karwizi', you will be amazed that I think it is the best Shona description I have come across of how the body and soul of humans absorb and are consumed by music. It is not the same as simply saying 'I enjoyed the music.' Chirere is able to trace the whole flow of music into the human body, and trance-like, shape how individuals are given visions by a single piece of music.

With the contemporary Zimbabwean writers "at it like this", Hove believes that "we will soon see another literary boom more exciting than the 1980s and early 90s."

Memory Chirere has told me that he is working on a translation of Tudikidiki, but has admitted that it is not an easy task as translating some of the Shona nuances is challenging. Having enjoyed the Shona version, as well as the Chirere's English collection, "Somewhere in this Country", I look forward to the translation.
(Article from Emmanuel Sigauke's

Tudikidiki,Winner of Zimbabwe's National Arts Merit Award: Literature section 2009,
published by Priority Projects Publishing,Harare.
Orders can be made through Sam Mutetwa:
( +2634775968.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

an Alexander Kanengoni piece on Zimbabwe independence day

(By Alexander Kanengoni)
I will spread my dreams
On these stones and abandon them
To follow the faint echo
Of this emerging certainty

Freedom tremors resound
But many lives no more stir
An old woman whimpers
Clutching a string of black beads
We laid to rest Strength
There is a total absence of urge

Under that mopani tree
Time gave birth to Honesty
I witnessed it
Under the same tree
Time killed Honesty
I also witnessed it

I will gather stones
With my hands
And sacrifice them to God
For man
And his destiny

The songs that time sings
The dreams that time weaves
The memories that time drapes
The moments that time holds!

I have watched time
Trickle and freeze into icicles
I require ease
I strive to desire
I will continue
Sitting on these stones
Because here
Time will resolve itself.

Women Writing Zimbabwe

Women Writing Zimbabwe, 2008, Harare: Weaver Press.
(A fleeting review by Memory Chirere)

I have always had a copy of Women Writing Zimbabwe, a short story book in English published by Weaver Press in 2008 but only began to read it now.

Carrying short stories by fifteen different new and established women writers of Zimbabwe, this book has multiple thrusts. The stories are set in and out of Zimbabwe.

So far ‘Chemusana’ by Sabina Mutangadura is a story that I like best. Chemusana’s mother goes to work as a nurse in London, leaving Chemusana and his father behind. Chemusana depends on the house girl, Estella for care and companionship. They are happy together. The absence of Chemusana’s mother causes disagreements in the large family. Chemusana’s father’s sister is against Chemusana’s mother’s going away. She points out that her brother is as good as single and worse, Chemusana’s mother could be having affairs wherever she is. Ironically, Chemusana’s father has no problem with his wife’s escapades. He points out that his wife has gone away in order to provide for the family and there are suggestions that the wife could be sponsoring the husband’s on going Masters Degree programme.

In the subplot, Estella is involved with a man in South Africa who exploits her sexually whenever he visits. She is keen to join him in South Africa even if it means quitting her housemaid’s job unceremoniously. Chemusana’s father, ironically fails to understand why the young Estella wants to go into the diaspora when he sees reason in his own wife’s stay in London. Estella leaves in a huff without saying goodbye. But immediately Estella returns, having learnt that her boy friend is actually a married man. There is joy in the home because at least Chemusana now has company again. Estella is the mother that Chemusana needs (and maybe the wife that Chemusana’s father does not have.)

Then there is the story ‘Mr. Wonder’ by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Opportunities and tactful people! Mrs. Mutasa has a good time flirting with a young man in San Francisco. She does it as revenge because her husband is always having a nice time with various girls. He is sometimes caught red handed with some of them in bed. Usually he makes up for it by paying her off with goodies and very irresistible offers. This time he allows her a holiday in the US with the children. Wonder the ‘garden boy’ is asked to go with them. Mrs Mutasa wants him to clean up and do the laundry. But Mr. Mutasa only agrees to have Wonder join the family so that he keeps an eye on the wife on behalf of Mr. Mutasa.

In San Francisco, Wonder an Apostolic Christian, finds an open space in which to pray as he misses Zimbabwe and his church mates. Some Americans are attracted to poor Wonder’s meditative apostolic church style. His congregation grows from a trickle to large numbers. Wonder discovers that he has founded an apostolic gathering. The followers, out of sheer awe, pay him lots of money, to his amusement. An earthquake occurs in San Francisco and Wonder’s growing gathering thinks that this is a true sign that Wonder is indeed a man of wonder and power. However, the same earthquake scares Mrs. Mutasa and she quickly leads her party back home.

You must read ‘The Carer’ by Chiedza Musengezi. Tragicomic. Makes you think critically about some of our family values. Her son and his wife who stay in Harare take in old demented Mbuya Skipa whose husband died a long time ago.

This has various problems from a Shona point of view. 1. Customarily, Mbuya Skipa cannot stay permanently with her son because that means having to be nursed by a daughter in law, which is taboo. But she has no daughters of her own or living relatives. 2. Her Harare family assigns their cottage in the backyard to Mbuya Skipa because they think, and rightfully so, that the old lady needs her privacy. But the other Harare relatives abhor this because in the Shona customs, putting your mother further off like that is taboo. You risk suggesting that you do not love your mother that much. 3. Mbuya Skipa has lost control; she urinates and defecates everywhere. Sometimes she walks into the main house and says anything obscene in front of visitors. 4. Hannah, Mbuya Skipa’s daughter in law wants to go and visit her husband in Dubai. A friend suggests that she puts her in an old people’s home but according to Shona traditions, this is taboo. Only old people with no children of their own end up in old people’s homes.

Then ‘Delivery’ by Annie Holmes. My God! This one is threatening to be my real favourite. So many eyes looking at eyes looking at eyes. 1. The love between Percy (a white Zimbabwean woman in post-independent Zimbabwe) and Obi (an English cultured and educated Nigerian man in Zimbabwe. Percy is an inside outsider because although she is Zimbabwean, she is foreign to popular Shona culture. Obi is an outsider insider because although he is foreign, he is black and African like the Shonas. The black people in Murehwa think that Obi is Shona because he is black, only to notice that he does not know a single Shona word. They are even more shocked to hear Percy, a white person telling them in Shona that Obi is from England and knows no Shona!

2. There is the unstable understanding between Percy and her van Heerden family because she is going out with Obi, a black boy when they could have preferred she went out with a white boy.

3. There is the friendship full of compromises between Percy and her black friend, Tafi, whom she tolerates but does not understand e.g. Tafi’s fear that her daughter might be affected by countryside evil spirits when Tafi herself should be at home with all things African, baffles Percy.

4. Percy has very fond memories of Praxides, the African woman who nursed her but whose surname and Murehwa address she does not remember. It means Percy cannot get the Christmas greetings to Praxides. Obi chastises her for that and it fills Percy with regret because it seems to confirm that Percy is racist.

5. Percy tries very much to fit in the setting but her whiteness remains very visible. On the truck she shows sympathies for the bound goat, not aware that to the Shonas, the goat is as good as dead, however hard it frowns and frets. It is ready for the pot. When she walks into the n’anga’s homestead there is excited pandemonium at seeing a white person at such a place and someone shouts, ‘I didn’t know that even whites come to consult here.’

I stop here because I must go out. When I come back, I will read stories by Zvisinei Sandi and Petina Gappah. We were together in college in the early 1990’s. I am expecting ‘fireworks’.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Some African proverbs

When a man is stung by a bee, he doesn't set off to destroy all
beehives." - Kenya

"The man who marries a beautiful woman and the farmer who grows corn by
the roadside have the same problem." - Ethiopia

"A short man is not a boy." – Nigeria

“A chief’s son is just commoner in other lands” Zimbabwe

"No matter how hot your anger is, it cannot cook yams." - Nigeria.

"It requires a lot of carefulness to kill the fly that perches on the
scrotum." - Ghana

"If the throat can grant passage to a knife, the anus should wonder how
to expel it." - Seychelles

"The frown on the face of the goat will not stop it from being taken to
the market." - Nigeria

"An old lady feels uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb." -

"The same sun that melts the wax, hardens the clay." - Niger

"If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." -

"A child can play with its mother's breasts, but not its father's
testicles." - Guinea


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Mixed Blessings

Mixed Blessings
(By Monica Cheru)

John was a policeman whose wife had gone back to her home to deliver their first child. John had left her there months previously and was now going to check on whether he was now a father or widower.

The letter that John’s wife had asked a teacher at the local school to write for her, informing John about their bouncing baby boy, was still en route, caught up somewhere in the laborious Machinery that was the postal service. So poor John traveled in apprehensive ignorance of what awaited him at his destination.

John dropped off the bus in the early evening and set off for the eleven-kilometer walk to his wife’s parents’ home. A short way on, he came across an elderly gentleman. A short conversation revealed that the two were headed in the same direction, so they set off in amiable companionship.

The village was far and the path was mostly through a dark forest which would have to be traversed at night. A traveling companion was heaven-sent and John was not about to examine the mouth of his gift horse.

Soon it was nightfall. They walked through a forest only occasionally broken by fields. There were absolutely no homes on the way and they did not meet a single other soul. Owls hooted, hyenas laughed and a host of other eerie sounds serenaded the travelers on their way. John was glad that he had a companion who did not seem to fear the dark. He told himself that it was because if he had been alone he would have lost his way in the dark.

“It must be very confusing for one who did not grow up in these parts to negotiate this forest during the day, never mind at night like this. I am very lucky to have come across you, father.” John remarked respectfully to his partner.

“Yes my son. Even tomorrow you must thank your ancestors for protecting you. They are very strong and they fight for you.” That was the somewhat ambiguous answer.

John had the disquieting sensation that he was missing a very important point, if only he could figure out what it was. The two walked on talking about famine, education and the fickleness of women.

At one point they saw a pillar of fire right in front of them. John almost turned tail and fled but his companion stopped him and warned: “Do not run away or you will be lost. Just walk on as if there is nothing in your way. Forces of the night feed on fear. Believe me, I know. Walk right behind me.”

They walked into the pillar of fire and John felt deathly cold and clammy. It was as though he had been covered in the skin of a reptile.
The elderly gentleman did not seem affected at all and kept on chatting even in the middle of the chilling fire. When they were safely past, John fumbled in his pocket for some tobacco and a piece of newspaper to roll a smoke. He really needed to calm his nerves.

“Do not light that thing!” thundered the old man. Startled, John hurriedly put back the offensive item into his pocket but was too afraid to ask what taboo he had been about to break.

Eventually, they came to the river, which was just before John’s destination. Even in the dimness of the night it was possible to distinguish the outlines of the huts that made up his father-in-law’s homestead on the other side. So near and yet so far. John could have wept. The river was wide and deep. The canoe used to cross was on the other shore. It seemed too cruel to be forced to sleep hungry on the water’s edge while warmth, food and love waited on the other side. Surely the ancestors could not be so unkind?

Noting John’s woebegone expression, the old man chuckled and said, “Don’t worry my son. Today your ancestors are with you. Good fortune is smiling at you more than you appreciate right now. I will get the canoe and row you across.”

John was perplexed. Surely the old man was not planning to swim across more than thirty meters of crocodile-infested water! John did not want the old man’s death on his conscience. His whole family would be plagued by the man’s avenging spirit. The old man just laughed again when John vocalized his concern. He said there was no way John could ever be held responsible for his death as it was impossible for him to die that night.

While John was still trying to absorb that last statement, the man pulled up a few tufts of grass from the riverbank and rolled them into a coil like the ones used by women to cushion their heads when carrying bundles of firewood. Before John’s disbelieving eyes, the old man placed the coil of grass on the water, sat atop it, legs neatly folded under him as though he was in a hut full of his social superiors, and sailed straight across the darkly gleaming surface.

John rubbed his eyes and blinked several times but the mirage remained. The old man reached the far shore and disembarked from his marvelous sail-craft. He then put the canoe in the water and rowed back. As if in a dream, John got into the canoe and was rowed across. On the other side of the river, the elderly gentleman carefully stowed the canoe and got back onto his grass coil and sailed off into the night. With a wave he called over his shoulder, “Tell your in-laws that Chidume brought you home.”

As he the old man disappeared into the forest, John thought he saw the man silhouetted in flames. John rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the old man was no longer visible. The darkness had swallowed him totally.

John marched to the homestead still in a dreamy state. There the sight of his new son soon made him forget his queer experience. It was much later that his father-in-law wondered, “How did you get across? We brought the canoe across when we came from Mai Chenje’s beer party late in the evening. No one went across after that.”

When he heard John’s answer, the father-in-law was flabbergasted. “Your traveling mate was none other than Chidume, the evil spirit of the forest. He was a robber who was murdered by some angry villagers. His body was dumped in the forest and no cleansing rituals were ever held for his soul. He usually leads his victims to a lion or to a leopard. But once in a while, he takes pity on a stranger and leads him safely past the forest. Your ancestors must be very strong to make you one of the very few lucky ones. But it’s a mixed blessing. From now on, no ghost or any other supernatural manifestation can ever scare you. The only problem is that when you die, you too will become a wandering soul and there is nothing that you can do to avert that. It is the price for receiving a favor from one of the powers of the dark.”

At that point, John, the lucky fellow, the feared burakwacha (black watchman, as African cops were called then) fainted. He had learnt in the hard way why mothers always tell their children never to talk to strangers.

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