Friday, February 28, 2014

I wonder why the grass is green and why the wind is never seen?

I wonder why the grass is green,

And why the wind is never seen?

Who taught the birds to build a nest,

And told the trees to take a rest?

O, when the moon is not quite round,

Where can the missing bit be found?

Who lights the stars, when they blow out,

And makes the lightning flash about?

Who paints the rainbow in the sky,

And hangs the fluffy clouds so high?

Why is it now, do you suppose,

That Dad won’t tell me, if he knows?
By Jeannie Kirby

Monday, February 17, 2014

How could I compete with Charles Mungoshi!: Mabasa

Talking to Beavan Tapureta in Bulawayo at the NAMA awards, Ignatius Mabasa who was joint winner with Charles Mungoshi in the Outstanding Fiction category, regrets having to be nominated alongside his mentor, Charles Mungoshi. He never dreamt of  competing with his elder. Read the full story here:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fragments from Zimbabwe war literature

Pebbles in a potholeBy Charles Pfukwa...based on a TRUE story!
I QUICKLY crossed the road with Bvanyangu and looked for the land mine. It was just off the concrete apron of the bridge.
My heart sank and I knelt down almost in prayer.
The mine was there – it had not detonated.
I caught up with BV; a huge hulk of a man, over six feet tall.
Everything about him was massive, huge chest, bulging muscles.
He carried his LMG with ease as if it was an AK 47.
He wore this huge black hat that always reminded me of Zorro.
The only thing that was small on the jet black face were the eyes.
And in his fury they became smaller.
They were the only feature that betrayed his great concern for me.
I could feel his fury, his compassion as I was marching to my death.
After all, he had been there listening as Command decided that I should go and reset the mine.
Obviously some of the things that were said there were not very comradely, but he was man enough not to tell me – I could read between the lines.
BV was more than a comrade in arms, he was a brother.
We had come a long way together.
We had gone through the basic training together at Takawira Base One at Chimoio in the first four months of 1977.
Upon completion, he was one of those hefty graduates who were handpicked and sent for some semi-commando training at the new Takawira Base Two.
I was drafted into the engineering corps where we specialised in demolition and mine laying under the wise eye of Cde Paul Njiri Chibende (may his soul rest in peace.)
Three months later, we met again and were drafted into the same unit and we marched off to war.
We ended up in Makoni detachment under different commanders, but we met regularly until we teamed up in advance operations in the farms.
Our forays took us as far as Rusape and Headlands.
This particular mission was near Inyati Mine near Arnoldine Mission.
I suppose it was a painful experience to see someone so close, someone you had come a long way together marching to his death.
Yes war is about sacrifice, but marching to sure death is quite another matter.
“I will do it,” I declared in a low, dry voice.
He spun around and his eyes said it all as they retreated deep into their sockets.
He quickly recovered his composure and the frown turned into pity mingled with disbelief.
Already I was a piece of mangled flesh torn to pieces by some four kilos of TNT.
My heart was hanging in a tree, a hand here, an ear there, some hair here and a rag there, all covered by a fine layer of dust mingled with blood.
“I will see what can be done,” I repeated.
“Let’s move on.”
He turned and continued the march and never said a single word until we came to the landmine.
Now, as I looked at the pothole, groping for a solution, my mind wandered over a wide landscape and rested on events of the previous night.
A 15-strong squad had descended on the bridge on the still, moonless evening. While the rest took positions on both sides of the bridge, Mao and I selected a site just off the bridge suitable for laying the mine.
I flicked open the bayonet of my AK 47 submachine gun and prodded the gravel track.
I then examined the wheel ruts and then indicated to Mao the most suitable point. He looked around and then grunted in satisfaction.
I unslung the mine, produced a small hoe and began the task.
I carefully excavated the small hole which was about 20 cm wide and 20 cm deep.
I scooped the soil out and put it on a hessian bag that was laid out beside me.
When the hole was deep enough, I put in the mine.
Mao was not satisfied.
“That’s too shallow, add a few more inches,” he said.
I told him the hole was deep enough, but his reply came as an order and I complied.
I laid the mine and insulated it with plastic paper.
I covered it with soil and with that the task was complete. But I was still uneasy.
On my own, I could have done a better job.

THE little pothole yawning at me reminded me of the reality of the potential tragedy that was unfolding.
And I was the main actor in the drama albeit very unwillingly.
I snapped open the bayonet of my AK and gently poked the shallow pothole that marked where the mine was.
It was about five cm below the gravel surface.
I do not know how it had escaped detection.
But several vehicles had hit the rut.
It was only that their pressure was not sufficient enough to detonate the mine.
The mine was already set.
It was safely protected by three layers of thick plastic paper that had been firmly tucked into its sides.
We filled the sides of the hole with some gravel and pressed it down firmly to ensure that there was no movement.
Now this new complication, these wheels showed that it had been run over several times.
I had no solution to this problem.
Time was running out and there was no one to turn to.
This was my own calabash. I could not share it with anyone.
One man, one mine.
I had a special relationship with this mine.
It was an odd one from somewhere in Eastern Europe, probably Yugoslavian or Rumanian – definitely it was not Chinese or Russian. I had worked on those and detonated them successfully on the road from Baradzanwa to Rugoi Camp.
This one was an odd contraption about 15cm in diameter and 15cm deep.
It was smaller than the other versions, which resembled a wide shallow frying pan. This one looked like a one litre tin, or a small cylindrical pot.
The more popular versions had a detonator which was screwed in on top after setting it.
They were easier and safer to work on once placed in the hole.
This one was a different kettle of fish altogether.
It had a mechanical detonator with a crude mechanism.
The detonator was on top and kept in place by two metal strips that crossed.
These two strips were attached to the top of the mine by some clips.
The slightest touch on any part of the strips would activate detonator and that would be Armageddon.
I had carried this mine on my back when I came into the front, fresh from training about 14 months before.
This had given me enough time to examine and study it.
It fascinated me. How did it work?
I had spent hours examining it until it became my little toy.
It had gone several sections in the detachment until it was handed back to me.
Nobody wanted to use it.
No one could understand how it worked.
The Detachment Commander knew of my modest reputation as a mine layer, so he sent me with the instruction that I should lay it.
I would have done it successfully had it not been that little Cde Mao — now he did not want to come anywhere near it.
This was my problem.
“Bloody coward, son of a …,” I said.
I was interrupted by an urgent shout from a comrade safely under cover, well off the road: “Motor vehicle!”
I stared at him, paralysed by the urgency of his voice.
The sound of the truck galvanised me into action – it was approaching the bend.
I jumped to my feet and looked for the nearest cover.
There were two options, either I would scamper across the road and hide behind the bush.
The near side of the road was bare with the nearest cover 10m away.
I would not make it.
The approaching sound gave me the third option.
I would jump under the bridge.
But it was a big risk – if the mine detonated while I was under the bridge, that would be the end of me.
I had two choices; both of them not very pleasant- detection or detonation.
The truck put wings on my feet.
It was the immediate danger.
I took the third option and scurried under the bridge and held my breath.
Again, I found myself appealing to the ancestors.
The next 30 seconds were like an eternity to me.
I waited with bated breath as the rumble drew closer.
It was a heavy vehicle, probably with a trailer.
Some 24 wheels rumbled over the small bridge towards the mine.
The bridge shook and groaned under the weight of the vehicle.
I waited for the inevitable as twenty-four big wheels rolled towards the mine.
TWENTY four big wheels rolled past the bridge, past the mine and disappeared round the corner.
There was no time to contemplate what would have happened.
I crawled out from under the bridge and returned to my mine.
BV also crept out of cover and came forward only to stop at a safe distance from the mine.
All along I had been agonising over a solution.
Digging out the mine was no option.
I still loved my life.
I reopened my bayonet and again prodded.
The fresh tracks made by the heavy truck made it quite clear they had cut deep into the shallow pothole that held the mine.
A solution dawned upon me almost like the light Saul saw on his way to Damascus.
It did not come as a brain wave or some brilliant breathtaking revelation.
It was simple physics: The hole was too deep.
The pressure exerted by the vehicle was not sufficient to act on the detonator.
The soil we added acted as a cushion and absorbed all the pressure from the passing vehicles.
All I had to do was add some pebbles to the level of the gravel surface.
These pebbles, when pressed, would exert pressure on the detonator and the fireworks were sure to follow.
Using my bayonet, I gently prodded the pothole, loosening the soil that covered the mine.
I went down on my belly and gently scooped the soil out of the hole.
I took off my denim jacket and put the soil in it — I would need that soil later on.
I carefully removed all the soil until I had unearthed the plastic paper that acted as insulator.
I would go no further.
The plastic sheet had been neatly and tightly tucked into the sides of the mine – touching that would make me a war hero before I wanted to be one.
I could hardly conceal my excitement in finding this solution to an impossible problem.
I collected the two handfuls of stones about the size of pebbles and deftly laid them down in the hole.
BV should have thought I had gone mad as I wandered about the road picking up the pebbles.
I added another handful and arranged them neatly like a stone mason.
This was a deadly task, it needed care and diligence.
Satisfied with my effort, I stood back and took the soil on my jacket and sprinkled it over the rocks.
Very gently, I spread the soil to the level of the road surface.
I threw away the rest of the soil, shook my jacket and put it on.
There was one snag: It had rained and the soil was muddy.
Even in the darkness it was clear the road surface had been dug.
I had to sprinkle some water on the mine surface to obliterate any signs of mischief.
I had no container – I looked around – there was nothing I could use to hold just a drop of water.
The solution came from my head.
I took off my lovely canvas hat which had quite a history on its own and used it to fetch the water.
It was not the most fashionable headgear, but it served its purpose well.
It kept my head dry during the rain season.
I returned to my place of refuge with love and joy like that of an old bird that revisits its nest.
I scooped a hatful of water and sprinkled it on the surface.
Two more hatfuls made the job complete and I stepped back removing any signs of my presence using a branch.
I put on my headgear with pride and pleasure.
I wonder where I lost it.
It would have been a priceless souvenir now.
I walked to BV who had been watching the whole exercise from a safe distance and snapped a smart salute – operation over.
BV summoned the rest of the unit who had been covering both sides of the bridge and we marched back to base.
I was too tired, frustrated and annoyed to talk to anyone.
I nibbled a few morsels of sadza and went to sleep some distance from the rest of the unit.
I just wanted to be myself.
The mine exploded next morning at about 8:00am.
I was fast asleep – BV came with the good tidings, he was overjoyed.
For me, it was a shattering anticlimax and all the risks I had taken came like a flood into my mind.
“What exactly did you do?” he asked.
When I told him, his jaw sagged and he snorted: “Pebbles in a pothole? I can't believe it!"

++Appeared in The Patriot, January 2014. A version of this short story was published in The Horizon Magazine in 1996.