‘Better Build Boys than Repair Men’

The funeral wake was at a small house on the southern end of Ardbennie Road, near George Stark School. The dead man’s name was Conrad ‘Square’ Ruwizhi, a notorious robber who had died during a shoot-out with police near the busy flyover on the Beatrice Road. Conrad Ruwizhi’s nickname had much to do with his birth, when an inept midwife had deformed the upper part of his cranium into an odd, rectangular shape. On being shown his newborn son, the proud father had asked, &ls

Daniel Mandishona
Daniel Mandishona

And the nickname had stuck.

All the township’s well-known criminals were at the funeral – Johnny ‘Danger’ Machipisa, Solo ‘Razor’ Kahungu, Christopher ‘Violence’ Phiri, Elijah ‘Mabhini’ Nyembe, Eddie ‘Sugar’ Mushita and the biggest criminal of them all – Innocent ‘Godfather’ Masaga. The names of these gangsters were scrawled in bright paint on the school walls. Their daring deeds were the subject of hushed conversations in township bars and on the commuter buses. These men were rumoured to possess magical charms which made them immune to bullets.

There were rumours, especially amongst the township’s good-time girls, that ‘Square’s legendary fearlessness was due to the fact that he only had one testicle – a mass of withered and wrinkled tissue that took up half the space in his underwear. Men with a single testicle were supposed to be as fearless as a hundred warriors. It was said that Square, could go to bed with as many as a dozen women at once because of the sexual powers he derived from that single testicle.

Eddie Mushita was known as ‘Sugar’ because that was what the township girls said he tasted like. Elijah ‘Mabhini’ Nyembe’s nickname had been earned early in his criminal career when he single-handedly hijacked a truck carrying a consignment of plastic rubbish bins. The truck had been found a week later abandoned on the Old Bulawayo Road, minus its consignment of bins and all its tyres. Another criminal, present at the funeral, Innocent ‘Godfather’ Masaga, was a ruthless extortionist famed for acts of random brutality. People who crossed his path immediately moved their entire families to live in other neighbourhoods, far from Masaga’s vengeful tentacles.

Solomon ‘Razor’ Kahungu earned his nickname after slashing off the ear-lobe of a boy who had made persistent but unwanted advances towards his sister Mary – a busty pre-teen whose promiscuity had earned her the nickname ‘Mary Go Round’. Johnny ‘Danger’ Machipisa was the first township criminal to commit a solo armed bank robbery. At the tender age of seventeen, he had walked into the isolated branch of a large commercial bank and held up the staff at gunpoint before walking out with thousands of dollars bulging in his pockets. The money had been squandered in an orgy of reckless living that had eventually attracted the attention of the police.

He served a ten-year sentence for that crime and because the colonial penal system put emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation, he had used his incarceration to become an even more hardened criminal. Later in life, he would become a founder member of the Zimbabwe African Thieves Organisation (ZATO), a loose affiliation of pickpockets, bag-snatchers, loan sharks, burglars and muggers whose sole objective was to emulate the notoriety of the American and Sicilian mafias they admired so much.

It was during the body-viewing ceremony, while the top half of the coffin was opened to allow mourners their last glimpse of the dearly departed soul that Square suddenly sat up, yawned silently, climbed out of his coffin and started walking casually down the street. The mourners who had been lining up to view the body scattered in terror in all directions at this unexpected development. Some of Square’s female relatives,

including his mother, his eldest sister and three aunts, fainted in a twitching heap in the fierce midday heat.

The hearse, a white Cadillac station wagon from the Heaven Is Waiting Burial Society (motto: We are the last ones to let you down) had already reversed into the narrow driveway ready to ferry the coffin to Strachan’s Cemetery. As Square walked past, the ashen-faced hearse driver just stared, his toothless mouth agape, his eyeballs nearly popping out of their sockets.

After walking about twenty yards, Square turned back to retrieve his beige trilby hat which had fallen off his chest as he arose out of the coffin. He untangled the red handkerchief tied to the gate (to indicate a death at a house) and used it to dab the sweat off his shiny face. He resumed his journey, walking past the imposing entrance to George Stark School (motto: Better Build Boys than Repair Men) and then turned left into Rakgajani Avenue. When he reached the Roman Catholic Church on Ayema Avenue he suddenly quickened his pace. Square knew these meandering streets well, having been born and bred in the Municipality Section’s cramped two-roomed asbestos-roofed dwellings.

When not terrorising the God-fearing and law-abiding citizens of the township Square and his notorious crew, the Prohibition gang, would drive around the dusty pot-holed ghetto streets in a 1958 Rambler station wagon dishing out wads of money to beggars and other homeless souls. The gang’s vehicle had once been owned by a funeral home in Port Elizabeth and a persistent township rumour was that the car was haunted. Residents claimed to have seen the vehicle on numerous occasions slowly cruising along the streets in the small hours with neither a driver nor passengers in sight. Square’s response to these stories was simple and to the point, ‘The car is automatic… It doesn’t need a driver.’

It had been during a busy month-end Friday afternoon as Square and the Prohibition gang were ambushing a cash-in-transit van that was heading for the heavy industrial area to deliver wages that the notorious hoodlum had met his untimely end. Some of the gang’s exploits were more foolhardy than daring; Square couldn’t tell the difference between fearlessness and recklessness.

The gang, driving a stolen car with fake number plates, had trailed the cash-in-transit van until it reached a busy junction near the edge of the city centre. As the van pulled up at the intersection the robbers’ car rammed it from the side and forced it off the road. Three of the robbers, armed with sawn-off shotguns, alighted and quickly surrounded the vehicle. The men were Conrad ‘Square’ Ruwizhi, Joe ‘Dillinger’ Manuwere and Ransom ‘Zorro’ Masanjala. Unfortunately for them, the police had been tipped off by a confidential informant and were soon on the scene in a convoy of five ‘B’-cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing.

In the ensuing confusion the man still in the car had managed to speed off but the three who had surrounded the cash-in-transit van, stranded in no man’s land, were left with no option other than to engage the heavily armed police in a bloody shoot-out. Square, who was shot eleven times in the upper chest and three times in the head, died on the spot. ‘Dillinger’ and ‘Zorro’ were badly wounded and eventually surrendered near the Nazareth Infectious Diseases Hospital.

As the dead man walked towards Stoddart Hall, a sizable crowd of curious people started following him at a respectable distance. Some daring young boys walked right up to him and attempted to touch him, as if to convince themselves that what they were seeing was really happening – a dead man walking. But Square steadfastly ignored them, striding purposefully towards his unknown destination with both hands insouciantly thrust into his hip pockets.

He walked past the gaudy billboards at Stoddart Hall, casually pausing to glance at the posters advertising that month’s ‘coming attractions’:

One Million Years B.C., Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Kiss Kiss Kill Kill, Our Man Flint, Five Ashore In Singapore. Posters of the township’s cinematic heroes and heroines were plastered on an adjacent wall – Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Raquel Welch, Sophia Loren, Jane Fonda. The women offered prurience and titillation, the men danger and sophistication.

He walked past the Rialto Nightclub, famous for the ominous warning in the men’s toilets: Anyone Caught Taking Drug Here Will Be Ban Forever. He walked past a group of Apostolic Faith devotees praying outside the noisy municipal swimming pool, the women long-robed in white, the men bearded, stone-faced and bare-footed.

The water in the swimming pool, discoloured with urine, glowed like a fresh oil slick in the mid-afternoon glare. He walked past the fruit and vegetable vendors outside the Community Centre, politely tipping his trilby hat at the astonished women. One of them, recognising Square and realising he was supposed to be dead, wailed uncontrollably as she ran off towards the Number Seven Ground.

At the end of Pazarangu Avenue the dead man turned left into Nyazika Street, past a crumbling roadside kiosk with the sign We Die Faded Jeans, past the algae-cloaked public lavatories at the Community Centre that had long been turned into a sleazy gambling den by the glue-sniffers and marijuana peddlers of Sanyanga Street, past the prefabricated and windowless shed that housed the Mother’s Love kindergarten school.

He walked past the blighted single-storey structure that had once been a prosperous bakery but which now housed a plethora of unregulated home industries. Amongst them were the Golden Girls Hair Salon, the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Bar and The Ghetto Fabulous Restaurant. He then walked briskly across the intersection of Daniel Street and Chatima Road, past Vito, Zata, Zambe and Jani Streets until he reached Shingirayi Primary School.

By now the crowd following the walking corpse had swelled to about three hundred people, amongst them a pair of uniformed policemen who had been diverted from their usual duties by the commotion. It seemed as though the whole township was now in silent pursuit. The township was known for its strange but well-documented incidents.

There was the legendary story of a woman caught by her husband being intimate with an albino baboon on Sondayi Street and another tale of a man who kept a dead python in a metal trunk underneath his bed at the Matapi hostels. But there was no record of a resuscitated corpse. A breathless newcomer soon joined the crowd of followers.

‘Who is that man?’ ‘It’s a ghost.’ ‘Isn’t that Square Ruwizhi?’ ‘So, if you already know who he is, why are you asking?’ ‘But is he not supposed to be dead? Wasn’t he shot by the police at the flyover?’ ‘He was dead. He just woke up.’

‘You cannot wake up from death, unless if you are Jesus.’ ‘Maybe he is Jesus.’ ‘Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, young man.’ ‘Don’t ask stupid questions.’ ‘So where’s he going?’

‘Nobody knows. He just got out of his coffin during body-viewing time and started walking.’ ‘Why don’t the police arrest him?’ ‘Arrest him for what? The guy is already dead.’

At the end of the street the dead man turned left and started walking towards the neat rows of semi-detached houses known as the Beatrice Cottages. By now the crowd in front of him was just as large as that behind him, a seething groundswell of curious faces and excited voices. Square remained resolutely unmoved by the commotion around him.

On Mbirimi Drive he suddenly stopped, and the huge crowd also stopped. He put his hand in the jacket of the black suit he was wearing and pulled out a crumpled packet of Madison cigarettes. But he soon discovered he had no matches. Deceased members of the criminal fraternity were usually buried with those material things that they had cherished during their days on earth, but the undertakers had forgotten to provide Square with a box of matches.

Square had been a big drinker and chain-smoker. On most Friday evenings, after a successful day picking the bulging pockets of the commuters at the Mashonaland Turf Club bus rank on Cameron Street, members of the Prohibition gang were well known for the drinking parties they hosted for their girlfriends at the El Morocco and Bonanza Nightclubs, the two rowdy establishments located at the sleazier end of the city centre. The parties would last all night and on offer to those privileged to have been invited would be every imaginable intoxicant – dagga, beer, brandy, port, whisky and wine.

Square turned around, holding out his hand to the crowd as if asking for a lighter. The people behind him scattered in all directions. It was the first time most of those walking behind him had actually seen the dead man’s face. There were dark rings around his eyes and both his nostrils were plugged with wads of cotton wool. It was a hot day, and a thin lining of sweat covered the corpse’s face. Square casually put the unlit cigarette back into his packet and from his other jacket pocket he retrieved a quarter bottle of Old Chateau brandy. Unscrewing the top, he took several long swigs and then nonchalantly put the bottle back into his pocket.

About the Author

Daniel Mandishona is an architect. He was born in Harare in 1959 and brought up by his maternal grandparents in Mbare (then known as Harari township). In 1976 he was expelled from Goromonzi Secondary School. He lived in London from 1977-92. He first studied Graphic Design, then Architecture at the Bartlett School, University College, London. He now has his own practice in Harare. His first short story, ‘A Wasted Land’ was published in Contemporary African Short Stories (1992). A collection of his short stories, White Gods Black Demons, was published in 2009.

Post published in: Arts

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