We trudged slowly along, bright early summer stars lighting our way. Meshack, who’d driven us a part of the way, could take us no further. We thanked him, knowing there was nothing more he could do. There was no fuel. We’d spent two hours with him trying to find the twenty litres needed to go kumusha and then come back to town; we’d only managed to find five, and these we’d had to drain from another car. It was a bad time to die, and our Freedom had chosen to do just that.
Dzika led us, sometimes stopping abruptly without saying why, sometimes trotting, sometimes shaking his head or murmuring, ‘saka Freedom hakuchina’. We all followed him, he knew the short cuts better than any of us. Later, he would recount how he’d led the way that day, and how we wouldn’t have made it to Freedom’s funeral without his help; he told the story with such fervour that one could think he’d been carrying us on his back. That was Dzika: but for all his boasting, we liked him and so we just responded, ‘zvakaoma shuwa’.
We didn’t speak much on the way. Freedom hadn’t spoken much either to give us memories of how sweet he’d been in his short life. But that night, carrying nothing but a few heads of cabbage and a packet of salt, and knowing that food was even scarcer where we were going, I began to think back over everything. Surely, it would have been better for us if Freedom had been stillborn – or shown some sign of weakness or deformity at birth. Then, we could have done something, anything, to ensure that Freedom survived. Things were still good for us at the time. And, as we say, nyoka dzanga dzichakavhurika. And my brother was still alive. They could have tried again.
Yet, no one knew or could have known that anything was wrong with him that early. How could we have suspected anything, when the elders, who saw him first, came back to us with nothing but admiration?
Even the women, who saw him emerging from his mother’s womb, the placenta not quite off him yet, had gasped at his beauty. Gogo had insisted the baby would not be born in a ‘foreign’ hospital: that was what had caused the birth of ‘vakadzi vese ava and no man at all,’ she said. There were things she wanted to do. Things only she and other elders knew how to do. They would make Freedom a strong man who would outlive us all. We trusted them. Why wouldn’t we?
Because, when Freedom was born, he was everything we’d been waiting for. We called him ‘our Freedom’ because he arrived at a time when everyone said that freedom was dying. But, we claimed, that was their freedom, not ours. Ours was a beacon who would carry the family’s name and hopes into the future; the first boy of his generation to carry the clan’s name forward. He’d given us the freedom from our worries of extinction. What did it matter that all around us other freedoms were crumbling?
Our Freedom was born smiling. We were living in the army camp then, so we had no idea what the hell those freedom criers were grumbling about. We were used to night curfews, we always carried our IDs, we could not forget who we were and enjoy ourselves without being reminded of the Base Warrant Officer. We envied those who lived outside the camp and their grumbling made no sense to us.
The camp was no one’s home. It was just a place where we lived and worked, knowing that one day we would have to leave. Except for a few, none knew when and how this would be. There were many reasons people left the camp. Some were sent to other camps, some retired and some were chased out for one form of indiscipline or another. But one thing that never happened in those days was that people resigned. It was just unheard of.
Only the temporary placement soldiers knew when they would leave. And, since none brought their families with them and they all stayed in the singles’ quarters without thought of separating the males from the females, they pretty much threw all caution to the wind and enjoyed themselves, making easy lay of the many young women in the camp, not to mention the occasional married woman. So they filled the outpatients department of the camp hospital wanting treatment for syphilis, gonorrhoea and common fist wounds. Then, they left as quietly and quickly as they came, taking the short stroll from their residence to the parade area where the transport to their next destination awaited them, rucksacks on their backs and canteens dangling from their hands, just as they had when they first appeared.
However, the most common reason people left the camp was death. Soldiers were dying en masse. My brother Piki did not escape. After he’d returned from a temporary placement at the Buffalo Range Camp, we neither asked him what he’d done, nor did we look him in the eye, but I knew he’d changed. If he had anything to tell us, he did not volunteer to do so. We buried him in that silence when our Freedom was three, and just beginning to talk properly.
So, we moved closer to home. Freedom would stay with his mother and gogo in the rurals. It was cheaper for everyone this way. Life was no longer the same. We could not afford many things. Dzika and I would live in town, and look for work. Living in the ghetto brought us closer to the refrain, ‘Freedom is dying!’ but we were too taken up with adjusting to our new struggle to notice much; if it had taken them twenty years to realise theirs was a freedom born dying, we had less time. No sooner had we settled, than our Freedom’s mother succumbed to that which we did not know. That was when we should have been worried, but how could we be when our Freedom was well and a bouncing little boy. So we buried her next to her husband’s fresh grave and carried on. Our Freedom was alive.
When, a year later, gogo called us again without telling us why, we went without premonition. After an impatient silence, we heard her say:
‘Something is wrong with our Freedom.’ We turned to look at the five year- old hope and realised in our blindness that it was true. That which afflicted our Freedom had been deceptive; an illness that did not show itself at first, choosing to do so only when it was too advanced for us to do anything about it.
It was the doctor who told us that he’d been born with that silent corruption. Our Freedom had never been free and had lived in the captivity of that which afflicted him from birth. But even as we knew he was dying, he kept smiling, pulling at gogo’s skirts and never failing to remind us why we had thought he was our freedom. But he had grown thinner and talked less. It was as if he’d learnt a new language that was called silence.
And as I waited in the queue at the government clinic in town, jostling for the medication that would keep him alive, it was only his smile that kept me there for hours on end. In the beginning the queues were not too long and we were asked fewer questions. But as the weeks passed, they grew longer, the interrogation increased, and sometimes I would not be given anything for weeks in a row.
About the author
Lawrence Hoba was born in 1983 in Masvingo. He is an entrepreneur, literacy promoter and author who studied Tourism and Hospitality Management at the University of Zimbabwe. Hoba’s short stories and poetry have appeared in a number of publications including Zimbablog, a journalof the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe, the Warwick Review (2009), Writing Now (2005) and Laughing Now (2007). His anthology, The Trek and Other Stories (2009) was nominated for the NAMA, 2010 and went on to win the ZBPA award for Best Literature in English.Post published in: Arts