Back in time some people were so thin that they had to jump around in the rain to get wet. Back in time.
Why am I so nervous? Why have I never stood firm in the face of anything, any confrontation? Outwardly I appear quite normal, like the other boys of my age. But inwardly I see a hollow drum. Sheepish, fragile, unsure of myself – what makes me mad! – it is so unnecessary. I look at myself in the mirror. I break off giggling foolishly. What’s wrong with me? I feel so insecure, so vulnerable. And this stutter when I speak, of late it has become much worse. My tongue feels like a slab of cement at the bottom of my mouth when I try to say something. Even when I am alone.
I keep promising myself I’ll brace up and shake off this needless shyness once and for all. But before I’m through with my promise, I know it won’t work. It is useless. There is this horror brewing at the base of my stomach. Sooner of later. Sooner or later…And this horror moves along with me, clings to me like a dirty shirt. The horror that tonight amai will come back from the market where she sells vegetables and fruit and say, “It has been a tough day, children. Nothing was bought. We can’t eat tonight.”
“There is no meal today.” It happened so often. First it “no school fees.” Then, “no meal.” Ever since that man, my father, made his cruel exit from our lives, when was crushed off his bicycle while riding home one night. At the cemetery, they forced me to look into his faceless face – crushed beyond recognition. My God! That could not be out smiling father: the strong but gentle man with his fingers badly blistered from hard work. The loving father who chose to go about in tattered shorts so that we could go to school and have basic meals. Poor dad who, with a salary of $35 a month, nevertheless painfully managed to keep things afloat and our heads above water. No, this could not be my father! I had never been so frightened in my life. I shook. God, I shook. I still shake. Now I shake invisibly, but I do shake. And that’s when this horrible stutter began. I’m the eldest and there is a string of others after me. Marble. Tendayi. Michael. Taona. God!
Each evening waiting for amai to come back from the market place and declare the night’s fate, “No meal again, my children. Tough luck.” And of late she has turned to dreaming about how things would be – had dad been still alive!
“If your father was still alive, do you think we couldn’t afford your school fees. Do you think we would be do degraded, fighting with flies for meals from the dustbins?” Amidst a gust of tears that made me weep in sympathy, she would go on and on as if driven. I wept for amai. For dad. For Tandayi. For Taona. For Marble. For Michael. Last of all, for myself. For here I was, the eldest and I could not find a job to fend for my family. I cannot even fend for myself. I still continue to be a burden on my already overburdened mother.
My friends are doing Form Six. Two years have passed since I discontinued school for lack of fees.
“At least you’ve got Form Four!” amai said, “We have to give the other children a chance, at least to get their primary school education.”
Amai was being her logical seld. Brusque, calculating and quite correct. But I could not cope with this logic, however correct. My friends were at school. The question was – why not me? The world was going to school. Why not me?
Amai thinks I’m useless. She obviously compares me with dad. Hard-working, breadwinning dad. I’m just useless. Useless and a burden to Highfields and this earth!
Dad’s neck had been grotesquely twisted. At the cemetery, his eyes were full of pain, pain…When I think of myself, ineffectual, dad’s broken neck and pained eyes confront me. I do not see the connection.
But today I feel exhilarated. I have just made a decision. For once I have made a decision. And not just any decision. For once I have proved amai wrong.
I stare at the house number. Number?
Exhilaration courses through my veins. Let me take my hands from the pockets of my patched shorts. I close my eyes hard and try to exorcise the panic that is threatening to drive me away. Knock, knock, knock. Silence.
Knock, knock, knock. The panic grows.
The door opens. A woman stands at the door. She considers me for some seconds. I resist the temptation to bolt.
“What do you want, boy?”
My throat is suddenly parched. I stand staring, buying myself time to speak. She looks at me impatiently. I smile meaninglessly.
“I…I…I’ve co…come to see the Chief.”
Here eyes look out beyond me to the dirt road and the neighboring house, obviously reassuring herself of something. Something I would not understand in patched khakhi shorts and tattered shirt.
I wait, rubbing my unshod feet together in the dust. She disappears. If I have to bolt, now is the time to do it. I am not going to break and bolt. I have broken and bolted enough. This is time for confrontation. For once, I’ll be brave.”
She comes out, again.
She puts me in front and escorts me into the lounge. I hold my breath and enter.
He sits in an armchair, cross-legged, clad in a black suit, white shirt and black tie with blue chevrons. His resemblance to the woman who opened the door strikes me. They are brother and sister. Definitely.
Robert Mugabe looks at me for a few seconds. I remain standing. He waves at an armchair and looks into the next room into which the woman had disappeared.
“Sabina, can I please have a glass of water.”
I sit down comfortably despite the welcoming softness of the armchair. Lord deliver me of this awkwardness and loosen my tongue.
“What is it?”
Yes, what is it that I have come to do here that is important enough to have to bother this very serious man.
I open my mouth, and close it again. He must have noticed I am strung up and tight. Frightened, to be less euphemistic. He smiles at me warmly. It loosens me up a bit. I open my mouth, again.
“We…we…we…want…to…to…understand what…what’s going on.” I have said it! He looks at me quizzically.
“About what, in particular?”
I look down, thinking vigorously about how to say it, but he is talking again.
“What’s your name?”
“Yes.” Jesus, how did he know! He is a man who must have been with young people for a long time to be so accurate. A teacher, for a long time, I now know.
“Doing Form Four?”
“I…I…I…” I always stammer when anyone probes me too closely. I am particularly frightened of the personal. I fear that people will see how vulnerable I am. How different I am. I have lied a lot about these aspects of my life. Even to myself. Strangely I don’t think I could lie to this man. Strangely, it feels unnecessary.
“I…I…left school last year when my mother could not afford the fees.” I give him an apologetic look. I somehow feel I have to apologize, for my shameful circumstances.
“We are not involved,” he says all of a sudden, “We are not involved with what’s going on with the so-called congresses. We are not involved. We are still ZANU and we will work like ZANU. What we believe in is a war for liberation. Armed struggle. We might be seen attending these congresses but it’s only for appearances.” He pauses thoughtfully, and then continues, “We have other more important plans. In the end, the hand of ZANU shall rule! How many of you are interested in this?”
“Many. Very many.” I look at him, absorbed. Am I lying? Do I really know?
“Yes, you can go and tell them what I’m telling you. If you have chosen to get involved you must be aware that this is a very serious issue. It’s not a matter of rat-hunting.
“At the moment we are powerless, and this is why we have to fight. It won’t surprise us to hear of orders for our arrest, our re-arrest. You are not involved, you have chosen to be involved. You may also be arrested and even killed. It’s no small thing. You have to be alert, you must be wary.”
I look at him, stunning. I swallow. This is too serious. Can I take it? I don’t think…I can’t think.
* * * *
I continue to see Robert Mugabe. He sends me on party errands.
Is this matter more important than dad being crushed under the wheels of a car? Having to leave school for lack of fees? Having to go for days on end without food? Was my present course, one I had chosen, more important than amai, my brothers and sisters and their hunger? Something in Mugabe’s eyes told me ‘yes’ - but I find myself fighting against the notion. What can be more important than the demands of poverty? Time will tell.
* * * *
Chitepo has been killed? Chitepo has what...? Good heavens - how? Who did it? So soon after meeting with Mugabe, this? What have I got myself into?
Black doeks, black dresses, black sorrow, black, black, black. Now and then an impassioned wail when a close relation, or colleague arrives; others joining in, and once again the protracted yarn of grief.
On the fringes of the gathering the riot squad waits for an excuse to unleash their Alsatians on to what is to them, a primitive din.
With Mrs. Chitepo stuck and frightened in Tanzania, Mugabe plays host.
The body has been refused access to the country, dead as it is.
I am startled, alarmed and confused. Mugabe has told us that once we reached Mozambique, Chitepo would follow and arrange things for us. But before we have even left the country he has been killed. What kind of game is this? Chitepo is killed and Kuanda arrests Tongogara and other senior ZANU men. What’s the big joke?
And now, the funeral is held at Mugabe’s residence. Does he give a damn about us being killed? If Smith is really Chitepo’s killer, does Mugabe think that his thirst will be sated with Chitepo’s blood alone?
There he is, taking the opportunity to convene a rally. It is actually an opportunity, so it turns out, for people to gather together and discuss the party’s policies. And here I am, supposed to be keeping vigil. Suspicious intruders, unwelcome visitors, and so on. I feel wet through and frightened.
Slogans! Slogans as well? Are we going to survive this day? I am sure the Special Branch is already amongst us, here. This is serious. Sudden silence descends upon the crowd. Only Mugabe’s voice can be heard above the background of soft moans. The crowd listens.
“...Nkala, Tekere, myself, and many others went into the detention in 1966. A few weeks ago we were released through the Lusaka Manifesto...During the almost ten years we were in prison, we went to Zambia ten times for talks. Smith had told Kuanda to talk us into accepting the old 1961 Constitution giving fifteen seats to Blacks. The Constitution was a British proposal...
“The idea behind the Constitution was to start with fifteen Black seats and then move gradually towards majority rule. Nkomo went ahead and gave his signature. This is one of the factors contributing to the split between ZAPU and ZANU. Chitepo, legal advisor of ZANU decided against signing. And now a rumor is going about that the intellectuals were the people that sold out on the country...
“But we declined to accept the proposal. We said we wanted majority rule. Now!”
There is whistling and ululation.
“As a result nothing came of these talks. Smith then tried another idea. He said he would release the detainees on condition that the armed struggle was stopped and that a congress would be held with nationalist leaders under the umbrella of the ANC and led by Muzorewa. This was also unacceptable to us. To stop the armed struggle was tantamount to reducing us to the toothless mouth we were before we resorted to arms. We did not want to refuse the terms of the proposals outright for fear that, in the eyes of the international community, we would be seen as people who were against unity.
“We were however aware of Smith’s plans. So, in order to circumvent his new plan, without attracting disapproval from the international community, we decided to counter with our own proposals which would be unacceptable to Smith. We proposed that first, the congress should be held in London and not Salisbury, and, secondly, that all the detained combatants including those awaiting execution be released. We knew Smith would never agree to have a congress in London as this would amount to reverting to British authority and therefore negating the meaning of UDI. Also to release the arrested guerillas would amount to releasing another force...”
I continue to keep vigil while trying not to lose track of Mugabe’s words.
At the end of the address the crowd is gripped with the spirit of revolution. They begin to disperse. Mugabe calls me. He wants me to stick around for possible errands.
Later, at night the senior party of officials including Nkala and Chidyausika gather in a room. Mugabe is talking, again.
“Frelimo has won in Mozambique. Chitepo has already links with Mondhlane and ZANU has a base in Mozambique. Zanla forces fought alongside Frelimo in Mozambique. If we delay in fostering this relationship there is a possibility that ZAPU will take over and forge closer relations with Frelimo. Before Chitepo died, he noted that ZANU’s relationship with Kaunda had deteriorated . Kaunda seems to trust Nkomo more than he does the ZANU...
“We have therefore to move our headquarters to Mozambique. Some of the leaders will stay behind in Salisbury for urban underground mobilization. Nkala will head this unit.”
* * * *
I am frightened. I will not make it to Mozambique. The booby traps. The electrified fence. The security forces. Along the border, they shoot on sight and ask questions later. If they catch you alive they snip your balls and the noose will follow. How many have been caught and broken by torture?
How frightened I am. Mugabe appears confident about the arrangements.
3.00 pm already!
At four Mugabe said we should meet at the bus terminus near his house. He will remain behind to recruit more people. At the terminus a white Renault 12 will collect us.
Shall I tell amai about it? Then if I die she will know where to start searching. But no, Mugabe has warned us about informing anyone. She might even try to dissuade me from going. I have already committed myself too much to withdraw. It is too late and I am frightened.
3.10 pm already.
I have to go and quickly before others start returning from school.
I have to leave.
I will miss you, amai and my brothers and sisters. I already miss you and I haven’t even left! I might never see you again!
Marble smiles at me. Look at her eyes alive with happiness. Of course the photo was taken before dad was killed. Tendayi - an innocent face. Michael. Taona. Amai. My people. They will not understand. No. They suffer but they will never understand.
And where do those tears come from? No, this is no time for years. No time is time for tears. All time is for fighting. I have learnt something already.
The others are already at the rendezvous. Five more minutes to wait.
This must be the car. It draws close to us. We are lost in silence. It stops.
It is Mahachi. We silently take our seats in the car. Even our positions there have been pre-arranged. I take my seat at the back.
And so the journey begins.
The long, long journey.
Suspended retorts grip the reins
Of untried faculties
Ride upon the saddle
Of restive infancy
In the sewage tank - the mind
Glass thoughts mirror pregnant terrors
Mind’s cogs grind mercilessly
Each turn comes sooner than necessary
Betrayal, hot on the heels
Where does this dust come from?
Who whistles a battle tune?
Grappling wirh fiction
Arched glistening backs, catapult.
I don’t really rely on something that depends on something else. Concrete. I want concrete, man.”
Peep through strangling overgrowth.
Glare into the African skies, questionning:
Where be booted feet
knotted with purpose?
No more nightmares
No snores, no coughs at night
What hope rains
What possibilities shine
What consolation blows
What fruits grow
On the wilting foliage
Of the spirit.
Leaning against the wind
Eyes watery with effort
Spine, aching, always aching
And all the time, knowing
When the lightning cracks, knowing
One might collapse
Into a waste
Neatly folded up
And cast into the skid row
Grudgingly sinking down
On worn-out knees
To creep out under the billowing skirts
“Killing cannot be an answer to killing”
“What then, is?”
“Words, cries! If the whole world had had the compassion to scream and cry loud enough when Smith made his first step, in 1965, he might have been dissuaded from plunging into UDI. This mad killing...these hundreds of souls...would never have been wasted. We would never have been here, waiting, to be likewise wasted.”
“But perhaps Smith could never have been stopped.”
“Damn it, I hate the killing! He would have been stopped. The trouble is that some cried crocodile tears as they smiled behind their handkerchiefs.”
“Smith would not have listened. Maniacs don’t care to listen. It would all have been to no avail.”
“This killing only earns one a soul torn and rent.
I don’t want to kill!
I don’t want to take part in the killing.”
So they would search their minds and souls. But all they could find was rage. The absurdity of war brutalizes everyone and everything. It cuts across comprehension. When people have been subjected to it for protracted periods they begin to accept death without rancour or regret.They die without complaint or protest, without glancing back. Their spirits have been ravaged long before bodies die. When the turn for their bodies comes, they walk inevitably into the unknown without a word.
They would argue.
And yet they would deliberately close their minds to outrage. To these involved it never happened.
It never happened. No. They would argue. After all no one will ever know the truth.
It could not have happened at Nyadzonia.
No. The truth will never be known. As if it is this knowing that matters, and not the damage, not the feelings. As if it is the knowing that authenticates the pain, the suffering, the holocaust.
Without the knowing, it all did not happen.
No. Nothing happened.
The garish sun has already moved some distance from the jagged horizon. Its rays are needling through the canopy of leaves. Mountain music as the finch and the robin dart in and out of vision amidst the boughs. It was a dazzling morning. Amidst these high-rising, granite=topped mountains, the news was bright mornings, scorching days, hummed nights.
The Gandayi hills formed the only range that still possessed an exuberant growth of verdure. The mountains were an island on an otherwise over-ploughed, over-grazed and over-burdened stretch of monotonous sand. The people had first rushed for flatter land, leaving the insolence of the rock outcrops and harshness of the ragged terrain. Soon these gentler lands became congested and people were compelled to move into mountains which rose almost vertically into the clear skies. Soon the near-vertical slopes lost their rich and venerable saris - scrapped clean for scraggy crops. The soil would do. But, only for three to four years - before the loosened earth had washed down and away into Murowa, the Mpudzi and finally the Save River, which was already threatened with siltation. Then there was no soil for the roots to grip: all that remained were hostile , granite teeth and deep doings. Peasant farmers has no option but to continue to labor on this naked mountain back, more for pastime, in the end, than for production.
Come summer, and the wild primates, baboons and monkeys, descend from nowhere to wage guerilla warfare on the naked children with sun-dried tears and baked skin who are left to guard the lands whilst their elders weed the fields devoid of crops. It is a pastime.
The white man chose to call this laziness.
Rising at 4.30 am, beating the birds to their game, and retiring once the hoe can no longer find its target.
At 6.30am by the time the children leave for school, ten kilometers away, they are drenched with the sweat: two hours of hauling cowdung from the cattle kraals to the lands - concerted bid for survival, acrid as wood smoke. And then, having to walk ten kilometers in the next hour, on bare, blistered feet remembering that a sadistic teacher will waiting with a baton to baste the latecomers. Little buttocks peeping through time-exhausted fabric - tiny, hardened calf and buttock muscles will have to stretch and flex like an elastic band. Brown packet containing two cobs, one for breakfast and one for lunch.
The white man chose to call it stupidity when the rural schoolchild failed to remember who taught King George the Fifth in the the third grade.
Of course, this was before the schools were closed down in the heat of the war. Then the children became full-time laborers.
About Charles Samupindi and Pawns
Charles Samupindi was born in 1961 in Mutare, the oldest of eight children. After completing his secondary school education at Sakubva High School and Hartzell Mission, he attended the University of Zimbabwe. He worked as a Public Prosecutor at the Harare magistrate court and but later joined Zimpapers as a sub-editor for The Herald Newspaper. Each day after work, Samupindi would settle down with this old typewriter bought at an auction reading and writing late into the night, thus balancing his work, family life and passion for writing. His first novel, The Trial of Nehanda was published by Mambo Press. Soon after, he began his research about the liberation war for Pawns. During this time, he also spent a lot of time with a former freedom fighter named Sceva. Pawns was published by Baobab Press in 1992. After his death in 1993, he is survived by his wife Julita and two children.
Pawns depicts the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, in particular the intra-guerilla conflicts within ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) that took place in Mozambique and also in Zimbabwe itself. The main protagonist Daniel (aka Fangs) enlists in the war as a way to escape his family's abject poverty after the death of his father. In Samupindi's universe, the war itself is neither heroic nor honorable. Inexperienced young men experience hunger and disease as they wait for events to unfold. Pawns offers a pluralistic perspective on Zimbabwe's national identity by exploring the internecine conflict between the young, educated and idealistic group of Vashandi guerillas and those that represent the old nationalists of the ZANU party. While Fangs is a fictional character, Samupindi surrounds him with many of the real people from Zimbabwe's history. The presence of a younger Robert Mugabe is particularly haunting as a stern and manipulative leader with a real adherence to violent ideologies. The violence however, of colonialism, of the guerillas, of the leaders and of Fangs himself is an electric force throughout the novel. All consuming and all encompassing, it is sustained not just through the gory acts of the fighters but is embedded within Samupindi's prose. Re-reading Pawns today takes on a prophetic quality since Samupindi's novel presents ethnic tensions, violent ideologies, inchoate forms of nationalism and the general chaos of revolution; all of which seems to herald a present-day Zimbabwe teetering under the weight of Mugabe's tyranny and experiencing deep political and economic instabilities. Pawns offers a fragmented narrative, not so much in its chronology but through its narrator whose voice shifts from prose to poetry very fluidly. As Fangs becomes further entrenched in the experience of war, he compiles a diary of word fragments as a metaphor for his now fractured, less whole, less clear identity. The author weaves in oral songs of war that depict the mass nationalist sentiment. Towards the end, Samupindi inserts newspaper clippings from 1979 thus sustaining a critique of colonialism even while offering a fair and non-romanticized portrayal of the revolution that counters this colonialism. A complex and disorienting picture of the liberation war emerges, one that begs more questions than answers.