February 16, 2010
I’m walking down a path outside the centre, by myself strolling around, probably whistling, and I meet a man or woman or child: “Mangwanani,” I say. They respond “Mangwanani, marara sei?” I answer, “Ndarara mararawo,” and they respond, “Ndarara.” Usually this also involves a hand shake, or hand grasp really, with one shake maybe. It all takes about thirty seconds. If they greet me first, I’m the responder. The problem is that you must go through this rigmarole with every single person you encounter. Imagine walking down a busy sidewalk and stopping for a greeting ritual with every single person. And that’s good morning; it changes to good afternoon and good evening as the day progresses, and if you meet a group you can’t say hello to the group, you have to go through the routine with each individual. Africa teaches you to slow down, which is the secret of time. Whatever you’re rushing off to do, it’s not as important as greeting the person in front of you right now.
I’m walking down a path, and I meet a boy about seven years old, one of the many children too poor to go to school and learn English. He has a ball he’s kicking made of some stuffing, grass or cloth or cardboard, completely covered in duct tape. It wasn’t very round, but he kicked it as he walked. When he stopped twenty feet in front of me, without a word I made a slight gesture with my head, and he kicked the ball over to me. I kicked it back as best I could. The day before I’d been laughed off the soccer field at the school because I couldn’t pass to my teammates. My stupid response was, “Wait till baseball season!” Now with this little boy I did better, blocking and kicking back, over and over. We played for at least half an hour then quietly went on our ways. I’ve never told this story because I don’t know what it means, but it has always stuck with me.
The pastor of the little church where the beautiful hymns were sent up to the heavens organized a dinner in my honor. Sadza, like polenta, was served with vegetables and sauce. We honored guests also had delicious stew meat and gravy with our porridge. Outside there was quite a struggle over who was allowed to sit and eat with us and who was left out. My good friend, Israel Chisosa, a young teacher, and I talked vivaciously the whole time. It was a great party. Then I was formally thanked for my visit and more songs were sung. Every single person had to shake hands with Baba Pedersen afterwards. Many were worried because I was not married. They wished me many children.
On the way home I was thoroughly happy, and I asked Baba Finster what meat we’d had that was so exquisite. “Don’t ask,” he said. “You mean it was goat?” I insisted. “They rarely eat meat. It was in your honor.” “What was?” I really didn’t get it. “That they killed the family dog.” Oh.
After I left in 1975 the war got worse as independence loomed. My friend and host, Bishop Abel Muzurewa, was the peace-making leader of a transition government, before the oligarch Robert Mugabe (1979). The freedom fighters, drunk on homemade beer, came to warn the Finsters to leave. The Dendera Community Development Centre was taken over by the rebels as a base camp, and they destroyed everything there. Now nothing remains. Well, a great deal remains actually. I carry some around with me all the time.
Happy trials and Fambai zvakanaka, Martin
Mutt: Hmmm. A contest then, a duel?
Jeff: And I’ll give you first strike.
Mutt: You’re on. Acupuncture: a jab well done.
Jeff: A chicken crossing the road: poultry in motion.
Mutt: The dead batteries were given out free of charge.
Jeff: Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead to know basis.
Mutt: A will is a dead giveaway.
Jeff: A boiled egg is hard to beat.
Mutt: You win. I give. Uncle!!!
Jeff: Nix, Mutt, nix. A gentlemen’s draw.
Besides Dendera I spent several days at the Nyadire Hospital with its nursing school and teacher training college. I spoke to all the classes, had great political discussions with the young people my age (I was 20), and we enjoyed an afternoon of tennis (with very dead balls). The Finsters and I stayed with a Finnish nurse who helped out there (no doctors), and she taught me to play Mah Jong. One evening we were playing when Anika excused herself to go operate on the pregnant woman I had brought in. An hour later she rejoined the game. Mother and baby fine. In Nyadire health care is urgent but matter-of-fact. (This was before the AIDS epidemic.)
My grandmother’s cousin, named Alice Whitney, has always been a legendary figure in our family. She was a missionary for many years in Nyadire where she founded an orphanage. Many mothers died in childbirth so their children were cared for at the orphanage for a couple years and then returned to their families. Alice Whitney met with me in Berkeley before I went over to give me letters and photos, messages and instructions on who to greet. In Nyadire I met the head nurse who had been her assistant; I think her name was Joyce. She was happy to have news from Amai Whitney, now an elderly woman, but she explained to me that she wasn’t feeling very well that day: a malaria attack. I got the disease myself a few weeks later.
On our little tour of the two-room orphanage I noticed that the naked babies came and went from the dirty outdoors to the filthy tiled indoors. There was even some excrement and urine on the floor. I didn’t say a word, but Joyce explained that they had had a problem a few years prior when some Swiss nurses had taken over after Amai Whitney left. They had sterilized the surroundings and kept the entire environment sanitized. The babies were much healthier. As soon as they returned to their families in the villages, the children died from lack of antibodies. Now they kept the orphanage only semi-clean and encouraged the kids to play outside on the ground.
Another tragedy had happened before my arrival. The year before I went, another young American man had volunteered to work the summer in Dendera. At the airport he met with three European nurses he was to accompany into the tribal lands and drove them in a borrowed jeep. While barreling along the bumpy highway toward Mozambique he saw a rabbit in the road, swerved to miss it by instinct, flipped the jeep several times, then crawled out yelling, “Is everyone okay?” All three of the nurses were dead. Could have been me.
In Mtoko one day, where we stopped to get the mail, a little boy brought me an mbira, the wonderful thumb piano of the Shona. He had carved out the inside of a board and burned a pattern on top. The tines were bicycle spokes beaten flat. I gave him a little money and was initiated into the music of the mbira. First thing I did back in California was get the only record of mbira music available (The Soul of Mbira, recorded by Paul F. Berlinger). Music as beautiful as any I’d ever heard. Music as spiritual as the wind blowing, a creek flowing, or the tiny birds in the baobab trees. I didn’t see Victoria Falls, but I heard the sound through the mbira. I heard the now-vanished antelope herds. Suffering and resistance. Listen to this record and compare it to the singers at the Grammy Awards. They have no idea what singing really means deep down inside. All their narcissistic vocal gymnastics cannot compare to the simple voices of Africa.
Happy trials and Toonana mangwana, Martin
Mutt: Remember Bertha? With her marriage she got a new name and a dress.
Jeff: When she saw her first strands of gray hair, she thought she’d dye.
Mutt: She fell onto an upholstery machine and was fully recovered.
Jeff: She was a geology professor, right?
Mutt: Yeah. Until she discovered that her theory of earthquakes was on shaky ground.
Jeff: No, I don’t remember Bertha.
Mutt: Me neither.
Jeff: Did you know that when fish are in schools they sometimes take debate?
Mutt: No. But I know that a bicycle can’t stand alone, it is two tired.
Jeff: Okay, I’ve got one to shut you up. Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.