‘The previous two weeks had been very cold and windy but on Sunday the sun shone. I smiled as I drew the curtains on the small window of my one rented room. It was warm and balmy outside. I whistled my favourite Sungura tune as I went to queue for the bathroom and the laundry sink. One had to be in the queue before dawn in order to bathe and avoid being late for work. But today was Sunday and there was no hurry.
I was a lodger in a ten-roomed house in the high density suburb of Chinseri, sharing the homestead with eight other families. Today the queues were short. I was number three in the bathroom queue and number four in the laundry queue. I indicated my presence in each queue by placing my red plastic tins in the line of buckets and dishes that had already formed before the laundry sink and the bathroom. Someone was already bathing. She was religious in song and happy to be showering on such a pleasant day; happy not to be late for whatever she intended to do. The bathroom was a known source of disputes because some residents shame-lessly jumped the queue. Others deliberately took too long, or were naturally slow.
Both types were nicknamed ‘Samanyanga’, elephants.
I would have preferred to bath after doing my laundry – sweat, and then bath. I was still single and my every task was personal. All the other lodgers knew that I never attempted to jump the queue and did not have much laundry. I did not enjoy the luxury of changing my clothes before the dirt was conspicuous. Every Sunday I washed two pairs of Safari suits, two shirts and two pairs of trousers, socks and underpants.
I went round the house to the front, which faced the main tarred road, where the male lodgers sat basking in the sun, enjoying the warmth. Sunday was a day of rest, so the men assembled to chat about football, the weather, politics and current affairs, always concluding with the deteriorating situation in the country. I enjoyed the discussions. No holds were barred, but the volume of our voices never rose too high.
Occasionally a ‘bomb’ or a ‘straight’ would be shared, and one or two twists of mbanje smoked but they were not essential. A crate of opaque beer… comradeship was what we enjoyed and we felt sorry for the one or two men who stuck to their wives and remained indoors. These meetings livened up my Sundays.
Then the militias came. They arrived from nowhere, ambushed us and trampled on the only flowers in our front garden. They must have moved quietly because we only noticed them when they’d reached our flower-bed. They were wearing party berets: green, yellow, black and red – five men and a woman marching in single file. Their white T-shirts were emblazoned with the picture of a formidable man holding a rifle. They seemed to be too determined to consider politeness.
‘Guys, we’re here to tell you to come to a meeting at 10 a.m. today at the open ground next to Runyararo Beer Garden,’ the leader announced, his eyes fixed on our crate of opaque beer. He swallowed. No one replied. He stood menacingly before us. We avoided looking at him. We knew their tactics. The militias thrived on intimidation, threats and gang warfare. No one volunteered to be our spokesman through fear or because there was nothing really to say.
I raised a scud slowly to my mouth. It covered my face. I drank very slowly and deliberately.
‘This is not an invitation that you are free to ignore. We said 10 o’clock, we mean 10 o’clock.’ The woman broke the silence as she paged through an old A4 exercise book as if she was looking for our names between its tattered pages. I could see the men watching me greedily as I slowly drank my beer. One, who was carrying an axe handle, paced about. Three others holding bicycle chains stood behind the woman standing in the flower bed. These militias regarded themselves as party youth though they were all about thirty. It seemed the real youths, meaning youngsters, did not enjoy such duties.
‘Are we together, guys?’ The leader smiled and sounded friendly. He stretched out his hand to take the scud from me but I passed it to Baba vaMati who was sitting next to me. I did not look up for a while.
‘You guys do not offer … Give me…’ He dropped his hands and left his sentence unfinished, disappointment all over his face. He did not like what I had done.
I should have given him the scud. His lips moved a little. He seemed about to pronounce judgement. We deserved a thorough hiding for refusing to offer him beer.
‘We give … we share and …?’ Baba vaShamiso could not find the words to bail us out, so he handed the militia a full new scud, an apologetic expression on his face. The leader of the militias was happy. He received the scud as if he’d been receiving the sacrament, with two open palms. ‘Are we together?’ His voice was jovial. He rejoiced at the beer but we did not know what his words meant. He sounded like a lecturer trying to capture the attention of his students. He bowed and shook the scud with exaggerated vigour. ‘Are we together?’ he said again, without looking at us. I almost laughed but I knew it was not permissible to laugh at a militia, so I coughed instead. Baba vaShamiso shook his head slowly and smiled. Baba vaChengetai hid his face in the scud.
Are-we-together guzzled his beer lasciviously and when he paused he gave a contented burp accompanied by a gratified click of the tongue. He caught his breath and handed the scud to the woman, who took a long swig in a short moment. Her gullet was large and she seemed well practised. The three other men laid down their arms in preparation for the consumption of beer. The business of commandeering people to the meeting was temporarily ignored.
‘The situation requires that you attend meetings. We are here to inform you to do so.’ Are-we-together brushed his lips with the back of his hand. He continued, ‘The enemy is after our country. You are aware of what the British and the Americans are doing …’
‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ I stopped his little address, and hurried to agree with him.
‘Sure, the British Prime Minister…’ Baba vaMatilda joined in, also anxious to interrupt his speech.
‘The land issue…’. Baba vaChengetai handed him the butt of a cigarette, which he hastily took to his mouth.
‘Like they did to Iraq…’ Baba vaShamiso did not want to be left out of the game of silencing the militia who seemed bent on politicising us.
‘Let’s proceed, Comrades,’ the woman said, much to our relief, and she turned and marched away. Are-we-together did not seem to approve.
‘You,’ he addressed her back. ‘Do not give us instructions. Are we together?’ He warned and moved towards her, jolting a lanky comrade who was still drinking noisily from the dregs of the scud.
Snatching the container, he up-ended it in his mouth, which seemed more for show than for alcohol, then returned the scud to the woman. It was empty. She peered inside, shook it and slowly put into the crate. She made a loud sharp sound with her tongue.
‘Why do you love beer like men?’ Are-we-together laughed insultingly. The woman stalked off unconcerned, accustomed as she was to derogatory behaviour.
‘Are we together, guys? … you can bring your beer to the meeting, I do not mind.’
We exchanged heavy sighs of relief as the militias trooped off, our eyes following them until they were behind the hibiscus hedge next door.
‘I am not attending the meeting,’ Baba vaShamiso declared. He rose and stretched his hands several times, punching the air as if he was preparing for a fight. I knew that despite his baby-face, he was unforgiving towards people who’d annoyed him. A vegetable vendor, he constantly ran the risk of being arrested for illegal vending.
‘We are down minus one scud … those bloodsuckers … who reap where they did not sow.’ It felt like a warned and cautioned statement. The Rastafarian father of Matilda was a commuter omnibus tout. His thirteen units at A-Level and a bookkeeping certificate were wasted at Mbare Msika bus terminus.
‘Yo…you will have to be, have to be gggggood at sloga-sloganeering, Kelvin.’ Baba vaChengetai perfected his deliberate stammer. He smiled the hopeless smile of an annoyed suburban resident who did not know how to deal with the militias.
About the Author
JULIUS CHINGONO (1946-2011) was born on a commercial farm. He worked for most of his life on the mines as a blaster. He had his poetry published in several Shona anthologies including Nhetembo, Mabvumira eNhetembo and Gwenyambira between 1968 and 1980. His only novel, ChipoChangu, was published in 1978, an award-winning play, ‘Ruvimbo’, was published in 1980, and a collection of poetry and short stories,Not Another Day, in 2006. His poetry in English has also been published in several South African and Zimbabwean anthologies: Flags of Love (Mireza yerudo) (1983) and Flag of Rags (1996). He has contributed to Poetry International in the Netherlands both as a poet and as a diarist. Julius was published in Writing Still (2003),Writing Now(2005)and Laughing Now (2007). His short story ‘Maria’s Interview’ was translated into Shona in the anthology Mazambuko (2011)Post published in: Entertainment