I told Chiedza the story to make her see that I understood that sacrifices had been made to get us to where we were.
My older sister and I were sitting with our backs against the wall of an old building that used to be a bakery before someone tried to indigenise it. No one else came near the huge, stone hulk that used to be Waldorf’s, not since the incident. Two people had died in the Jambanja between the workers and the indigenisers. One was a policeman, the other, nobody could remember.
At the bakery, everything was left as it was. If you cupped your hands around your eyes and peered through the windows, you could still see the huge ovens at the back, a counter with a till on it and a display cabinet in which you could imagine rows of cakes ranged on the shelves. Rats had eaten everything else. Lizards had taken over every crevice. You could see their blue-green heads peeping out of the dark spaces and their red and yellow bodies darting across the dusty concrete floor. I was sure there were other creatures too, enjoying the lack of human company.
The indigenisers had arrived just after opening time in the morning, waving sticks and tree branches, and singing Chimurenga songs – the festiveness suggested by their hypnotic dancing which belied the menace in the message “Mupanduki chera mwena, mupanduki nguva yakwana” (traitor dig a hole, traitor your time is up). Even people from the other part of the country, who speak a different language, knew this song. The peril lay in the fact that the ‘traitor’, for whom time has run out could be anybody, on any day. On some days it was white people, on others, black-market traders or people who didn't speak the local language. The people in the queue knew they could have been the intended recipients of this warning; they were waiting to buy bread and thereby colluding to keep the imperialists rich. In the grand scheme of things, as the government liked to remind people, bread was a luxury – one of those habits, together with flower-farming and cheese-making, that the imperialists cultivated to keep black people poor. Perhaps the indigenisers were going to take over the building and turn it into a maize mill. The government and their supporters seemed to think that maize was all that was needed to feed the hungry masses.
On hearing the singing, the customers, some of whom had been queuing since before sunrise, quickly abandoned their positions and scrambled from the entrance. (Queuing was like that – sometimes you were lucky, and you got what you queued for: sugar, salt, mealie-meal, cooking oil, fuel or cash. Other times, you didn't. People all over the country were used to walking away from queues with nothing, or with a different item to what they set out to buy.) Ignoring the possibility that things could turn violent, though, the queuers outside Waldorf Bakery didn't venture too far. They were not going to get bread from Waldorf’s on that day and most probably never again, but the excitement of a spectacle was too alluring.
The bakery workers tried to barricade themselves inside the shop using the large trolleys they used for ferrying bread from the ovens to the shelves, but they were outnumbered. Someone called the police. Or maybe they had already been on the way. Things often worked that way.
Like a wake of vultures, riot police swooped down on the scene, causing even more excitement and mayhem. Shots were fired. In the confusion, the indigenisers disappeared into the swirls of crowds that stood watching, open-mouthed. The workers picked up their bags, unhooked their jackets from the hooks behind the changing room door and scampered out of the bakery to be swallowed up by the same crowds. Not a single one of them turned up for work ever again. A few police officers continued to mill about for a week or two; then they, too, vanished, taking with them whatever was still edible, usable or saleable.
If it hadn't been for the dead policeman, it might have been as if it never happened. But because of it, once every few weeks, a wretched-looking man, eyes darting about maniacally, would be shown on the eight o'clock news as “one of the killers of the gallant police officer who was brutally murdered during the skirmishes at Waldorf Bakery…”. Sometimes it was two wretched-looking men. On one occasion there were even twenty-three wretched-looking men and women, wide-eyed and clearly in need of sleep and food, staring out of the screen. They were accused, announced an animated reporter in a green suit, of going to an unnamed enemy country for military training. They were then using this training to reverse the gains of the country's hard-won independence and, while they were at it, to kill police officers. This was serious: treasonous, the man in the green suit explained, the picture panning from one set of expressionless eyes to another. They were involved in a plot to topple our democratically elected government, the man said as the camera then moved to their bare feet, one at a time. Maybe they had been wearing shoes when they were arrested.
They, too, were soon forgotten. I often wondered if they remained at Chikurubi Maximum security prison, waiting for the government to appoint a hangman. (That job had been vacant for ten years. Nobody wanted to do the job of killing people who had already seen the end, countless times.) Or maybe they were not at Chikurubi at all. They might, as soon as the recording was over, have been given loaves of bread and bottles of Coca-Cola, t-shirts emblazoned at the back with the words Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation TV, your one and only favourite family station, and told to go home. They might now just be some of those countless people you saw on the bus or in the supermarket, wearing ZBC t-shirts, making you wonder how they had got them. Surely, though, the public deserved to know where these emaciated, yet highly dangerous people were. After all, they were trying to reverse the gains of our hard-won independence. But they had just disappeared. Perhaps they were best left unremembered.
We always ended up here. Chiedza didn't care where we went. I liked the smell of freshly baked bread. No bread had been baked here for the past five years, but I still liked to sit with my back against the wall and my eyes closed and imagine things the way they used to be; how I think they used to be. I didn't come to Waldorf’s before the indigenisation. Back then, I bought my bread from Koullas Bakery. The young man who packed the bread into brown paper bags after you'd bought it had eyes so deep and brown that when he looked at me everything seemed to disappear around me, until there was just the smell of freshly baked bread and the rapid thudding of my heart.
Koullas Bakery didn't bake bread anymore either. Mr Koullas, who was definitely not British, was also run out of his bakery and told to go back to Britain where you came from, not long after the Waldorf incident. The young man with the deep brown eyes was the one who had ended up in England, studying to be an engineer. A Chinese shop selling plastic buckets and shoes, electricals and bicycles now stood where Koullas Bakery used to be.
Tufts of grass had found pockets of dust to sprout from, where the wall was beginning to crumble. There were a lot of places just like this building all around the country. All silent, deserted but completely indigenised – owned by the people. There was the factory where they used to cure tobacco, the shoe factory, the factory where they used to make electric cookers and travelling bags and the foundry where they used to make car parts; all given over to vegetation and wildlife once the flag-waving, toyi-toying indigenisers realised that, after looting the place of all movables, there was nothing left to indigenise. Sometimes, the indigenisers would discover that the business belonged to a black person anyway and that they had toyi-toyied in vain. They would then console themselves and each other by proclaiming that black people that used white people's names for their businesses were not fully conscientised and needed re-education. The place would remain closed anyway – unclaimed, except by indigenous flora and faunaand wandering, angry spirits, always waiting to cause havoc with the lives of those who dared cross their paths. And nobody owned up to ever having had anything to do with the Waldorf Bakery, or knowing anybody who did.
I wasn't bothered that nobody else came there. I reckoned that there were angry wandering spirits everywhere, if it came to that. My sister, I suspect, hoped wandering spirits would wreak havoc with our lives – though perhaps not for both of us at the same time. She didn't like the idea of our lives being so inextricably intertwined.
They always had been. Our grandma, noticing how we were with each other, would remind us that kinship ‘cannot be washed off with soap, like dirt.’ “Wise words of our forefathers. You'll both do well to take heed,” she would say. It became an obsession for her. Once, when I tried to remind her that there was no soap in our forefathers' time, she slapped me so hard the imprints of her fingers remained on my cheek for days. We had other brothers and sisters; I could wash those ties away if I wanted to. She didn't seem to mind that; I already had done it with several of them. But not with Chiedza. We had a strong bond; the sort that is formed from knowing too much about each other.
It had been so since the business with the freedom fighter during the war. I was eight, she was fourteen.
It had all started when Father decided to send her to a boarding school far away from home. It was a mission school, out in the rurals. The Methodist sisters would look after her and keep her safe from the prying eyes and preying hands of men. That hadn't happened.
One night, a group of armed men knocked on the boarding mistress's door and forced her to open the girls' dormitory. Chiedza begged one of the freedom fighters not to leave her to the other men. She was a small, sickly girl, and he took pity on her. He claimed her just for himself. The other girls were not so lucky. The armed men spent the whole night in the dormitory, but by sunrise they were gone. It was as if the dark figures in camouflage, the AK-47s with bayonets, the anguished screams, had all been a mass nightmare the girls had had, like a mass hallucination. A lot of the girls who could not contain their hysteria had to go back home to their families, the school decided.
Chiedza remembered her freedom fighter’s kindness. She remembered that he had been gentle, almost shy, and had not battered her as the other men had done to her dorm mates. He had even covered her with a blanket before he left, and she thought she'd heard him apologise and say he loved her. So, she decided to follow him across the border to Mozambique. She packed a small bag and left the following afternoon, together with her best friend and two older girls.
At fourteen, she was not going to be allowed to be a fighter. She was too small, too young. She could serve other purposes, though. She hadn't known that. None of them had known that. But they knew they couldn't stay at the school, and all the girls who had somewhere to go had left as soon as they could. Neither the teachers nor the boarding mistress tried to stop them.
Father, trying to do the fatherly thing and hoping to find Chiedza before the neighbours found out, borrowed some money to buy a car and go looking for her. He bought a huge, second-hand forest-green Studebaker truck, the first car anybody in his immediate family had ever owned. It was the only car for miles around. I was proud of the car, of my dad, and of my sister for making dad buy the car. I remember the morning he left. He and mum had a huge row – not about my sister, but about the boiled mealies dad was to take as part of his provisions. They were undercooked, and couldn't Mum ever do anything right? Mum then refused to do the rest of his packing for him and said she hoped a landmine would get him.
He found her, living with a group of other young women, a few kilometres from the border post. Thankfully, Mum said, she wasn't carrying a bastard child or a venereal disease. Chiedza hadn't found her hero, didn't even know his name. They had reached the border and realised that crossing wasn't so easy. Rhodesian army patrols were too frequent. And even if they somehow managed to cross into Mozambique, where would they start looking for a guerrilla camp? Then there was the problem of the landmines and the wild animals. They couldn't face going back home either. What would everybody say?
They had rented a room with what little money they had. The room soon became a frequent haunt for the border soldiers, truckers and other travellers. But the girls had to eat, and had no other way of fending for themselves.
Anyway, that is how the story was remembered, by me. I can't remember anybody explaining to me what was happening. Maybe they did. My mum or dad. Maybe they came into my room – our room – and sat down and said ‘our child, a terrible thing has happened…’, but I don't think they did, because there was no bed or chair in our room and father would not have sat on the floor. Mum had bad knees and would have needed help getting back up again. So maybe Chiedza told me herself. Maybe we used to have more to say to each other back then. Maybe we used to stay up long into the dark nights, sharing the hidden things of our hearts.
They used my report card to get her into a different school. Mother couldn't look me in the eyes for a long time after that. She couldn't forgive father for bringing Chiedza back, couldn't love Chiedza anymore and hated that she hadn't died, and hated my knowing looks. Father started spending more and more time away from home. Mostly, I avoided everyone.
It is said that silence can be companionable and beautiful, but there was something different about the deliberate, unspoken words that filled our silences. We sat outside what used to be Waldorf Bakery with our legs stretched out and our eyes closed to the glare of the midday sun. The sun has a way of hitting you right between the eyes, at that time of the day, at that time of the year, at that angle where the bakery wall captures the rays. It forces you to fumble in your handbag for sunglasses so that you see the khaki envelope at the bottom of the bag. Is it a letter or is it money? The envelope you haven't decided whether to hand over or open first. You could give it to her the next time you are sitting with your back against the front wall of what used to be Waldorf Bakery.
We sat with our eyes tightly shut to the world. If we opened them, it would bring us back to now, to the silent spaces between our words, to the absence of other words, other voices, to the names we dared not mention. Something, maybe the unmentionable names, seemed to nudge the silent spaces between our phrases wider apart every time we took the walk from the hospital gate to what used to be Waldorf Bakery. We didn't know how to stitch together these widening rips to a continuous seam.
I wasn't sure what I wanted. I tried, as always, to find out, from amongst the jumble of our fractured conversations, what she was thinking.
“You know the other person who died, I mean, not the policeman...” I began to say, trying to fill the silence. Sometimes it is surprisingly difficult to find the right things to say.
“Why does it even matter?” she responded, not opening her eyes. I took that answer to refer both to the dead person and to the ridiculousness of our situation.
I hated it when she was like that: when nothing could persuade her to engage in idle gossip or small talk. Desperately trying to patch the scattered panels of our conversations into one quilt, I started telling her about how Larry, an activist student at my university who we called Warlord, had once threatened to exhume Cecil John Rhodes's remains from the Matopos and to throw them into the Zambezi River from where they would be washed out to sea.
Larry, or Warlord, was a history student who used to walk around campus wearing a horned helmet and a flowing, multi-coloured robe, like some Viking Joseph. We didn't believe ourselves to be at war with anybody, although most of our time was spent agitating for student demonstrations and protest marches. It was the ’90s; student demonstrations were frequent. They usually ended in violence and arrests. We referred to each other as cadres or comrades, so perhaps Larry was indeed our ‘warlord’.
I recounted to her how, one Sunday afternoon on the University Green – a patch of ground with clumps of grass I had never seen green – Larry, to great shouts of “adhumbureta wevhu”, had jumped onto a bench and started addressing a group of us who were scattered around, not sure what to do with ourselves. The University Green is where we went when we felt too lazy to pretend that we were working hard by booking carrels in the library and then falling asleep in them. Sitting or lying on the little bits of grass in the Green was a way of pretending that you were clever enough to concentrate on your reading with people milling about, playing ball games, and talking in loud voices or shouting.
Everyone knew that the Green was the place where students who were ready for distractions spent their afternoons, and we were ready and willing to be lured into other activities, ‘co-curricular activities’, we called them. We liked to amuse the young men, when they came up to propose that they couldn't concentrate because our beauty was too distracting, by falling in love for the afternoon. You could fall in love, or shout for a cause, for an afternoon before going back to the reality of Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood waiting to be read before the following morning's African Lit class because the tutor started all classes by saying ‘If you haven't read such and such a text you need to leave the class now before you embarrass yourself.’ You had to read God's Bits of Wood because you hadn't attended any seminars for A Chain of Voices and you were running out of options for texts you could answer questions on in the exam, and you didn't want to embarrass yourself. But for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, you could forget Sembene Ousmane and throw yourself wholeheartedly into co-curricular activities.
When Larry appeared on the Green that Sunday afternoon, we were as ready as ever.
“Comrades,” he'd started, to uproarious laughter and cheering. “In pre-colonial halcyon days, the Matopos – the sacred Njelele, Matonjeni, Mabweadziva, Dombodema, Mwarindidzimu, the earthly residence of Mwari – were only accessed by sanctified emissaries of the people.” We cheered every time he mentioned each of the traditional names of the Matopos. “Today, God's seat has been desecrated as the burial place of a rabidly racist white bandit, who viewed all non-Anglo-Saxons as ‘the most despicable specimens of human beings’.”
He repeated the ‘white bandit’ phrase for emphasis, and we all laughed out louder, because we associated the word ‘bandit’ with the gangs of white-clad prisoners who spent hot summer afternoons digging up the roadsides. Prisoners are called bhanditi in Shona, and we must all have had the same ridiculous image of Cecil Rhodes in white prison clothes, barefoot, digging holes that nobody needed, with the sun beating down on him.
Larry liked giving his speeches in English. Every time he said a word we were not familiar with, the crowd applauded. Very few of us knew what we thought about his idea, and none of us would dare dig up human remains anyway – not even the remains of a white person. We are a superstitious people. Clever as we all were, we didn't know how to appease a white person's ngozi. Traditionally, to appease the avenging spirits, one should pay restitution to his people, or sacrifice a beast. That would present some difficulties if we found ourselves in a position where we needed to appease Cecil Rhodes's spirit.
We just liked the impromptu Sunday-afternoon speeches, and the hysteria of it all. We liked to think that our bit of shouting on a Sunday afternoon was making a difference somewhere in the world – even if it was not our immediate world. We knew that much; the situation at the university and in the country was getting worse with each demonstration. But still, we were not deterred.
Years later, when I bothered to check the meaning of the word ‘adumbrate’, I wondered if I had been the only one who hadn't had a clue what most of the words that came out of the Sunday afternoon orations meant. Words were easy then. It felt good to be able to speak and be understood and to understand others, even using words none of us knew the meaning of and a language a lot of us found too hard to master.
But I told Chiedza the story to make her see that I understood that sacrifices had been made to get us to where we were. I had not wanted her to laugh that laugh then. I wanted her to tell me that it had not been in vain, that I had turned out all right, but she just threw her head back, revealing a row of once-sparkling-white teeth, and out came such a loud piercing sound that at first I thought she was crying. I didn't mean for the story to be funny – it wasn't funny – but she had laughed until she was doubled over in pain. That laugh had come from deep within the belly.
If I closed my eyes with my back against that wall, those teeth would still be sparkling white, and if not, it would be the red wine and nothing else. I could also have dreamed up the horrible sound that escaped her lips.
I hadn't wanted her to laugh at the memory of Larry, at how we used to be carefree, at how we thought we were at the centre of a world-changing revolution. At how we'd then left university only to realise that we hadn't made any difference, except for Enoch Chikweche, another former university student who changed his name to Munyaradzi Gwisai and refused to say his oath in parliament in English. We also own some land now – well, some of us do, although the manner of its acquisition makes me want never to open my eyes again.
Chiedza never wanted to talk about anything – the war, her illness, politics, us, death.
Was she angry – angry that her part of the story didn't seem to matter to anyone?
She says my stories are silly: 'Not stories at all.' The last time I saw her, she shut me up just when I was at the point where I would normally say, “The long and short of it is…” and she'd drawled, “There is no point to your stories. They start off as though there is going to be a point or at least something, and then – nothing. Words are only necessary when there is something to say.” That was the most she had said in one go for a long time. “They are not funny; you are not funny, so don't try so hard. They are full of details and colour, but nothing more.”
I thought she would have continued and asked why I didn't tell real stories like grandma used to tell, but she suddenly went quiet, surprised by the sound of her own voice. In fact Grandma told only one story: the story about how the crow lost his dinner. When we asked for a different story, she would claim to be tired or pretend to be falling asleep. I kept asking her to tell the story of how she'd been arrested for assaulting a BSAP officer. She'd been pregnant with mum and had spent some months in jail for assaulting a mujoni, a white police officer. She was the only person I knew to have done that. But she pretended that it hadn't happened.
“I don't like all this talking, Luba,” my sister said. “You try too hard – you hold on to things that don't matter,” she said, without opening her eyes. Then she told me that she didn't want me to come to the hospital gate anymore, and didn't ever want to sit with her back against the crumbling wall of what used to be Waldorf Bakery, nor have to deal with the sun hitting her right between the eyes.
Ethel Maqeda is a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MA Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including Volume 3 (Palm-Sized Press), The Same Havoc (The Selkie), Wretched Strangers (Boiler House Press), and Verse Matters (Valley Press). Mushrooms for my Mother and Other Stories made the 2020 SI Leeds Literary Prize longlist. Ethel lives in Sheffield where she works in an FE college.