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Sunday, 29 September 2013 11:43

Unilateral Declaration of Independence

By 
Sheila and Garikayi Moyo believed that having a child together was the only significant decision left to them in this life. When they decided, solemnly but with a sense of triumph, that the time to grow their family was now, they found conception easy. The second pregnancy, some years later, also came about at exactly the time of their choosing. Having these two sons according to their own calendar made Sheila feel as if they were sticking a sharpened pencil into the eye of the government. For once Garikayi agreed with one of her comparisons and didn’t call it silly. But soon his usual downbeat nature took over and he said that the government really didn’t care because its own pencil was much bigger and sharper.

That government, Garikayi insisted to his wife for the hundredth time, had been using its pencil on black people for so long. They never had a say in anything—they could not decide their own movements without the risk of passing a curfew or a boundary, they could not choose where to live and where to go to school, they could not select the jobs they liked, except for the cold comfort of the few menial vocations which had been left to them.

That’s why the war came in 1964. When their eldest son Jent was five years old, a group of black freedom fighters started what became the liberation war by launching sporadic attacks on unsuspecting white farmers in remote areas. It was their way of throwing down a challenge to those in power. The government responded by ruthlessly hunting down these terrorists, beginning a protracted battle that lasted well over a decade. At first it was all Sheila and Garikayi could do not to celebrate this show of resistance with public cheering. But then the government got tougher, and city-dwellers like Sheila and Garikayi were forced into an even more restrictive timetable. Each night when Garikayi made it home after a brush with the police he said loudly to no one at the kitchen sink that Ghana and Malawi were independent, and that other African countries were setting up to follow. He always added that Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, had better enjoy his reign while he could.

Even before the boys were born, racial segregation was all the couple had known. Every morning Sheila walked past Oasis bistro on her way to work. This was one of the countless establishments she would never eat in because of her colour. Through the louvre windows she saw the row of breakfast bain-maries and even on the street smelled the smoky waft of fried bacon. Without fail, one diner, sometimes more than one, would look up from a table and make eye contact with her. The exchange was wordless and always seemed to last longer than it actually did. Over time, her desire to enjoy just one leisurely meal in Oasis bistro became an obsession.

This was about the time they started talking about having a child. She worked at the local identity document office, and from her colleagues heard stories of the free world. By her logic, just because other countries were free made her think it would not be long before this place was the same. She wanted to help that transition, but short of joining the freedom movement, she could not think what to do. In the end she decided to help the cause by simply being ready. She was not sure what she would be ready for, but she expended great effort in being the best identity document worker she could become. She was fast and accurate and polite. If these skills were needed when the country changed, she would have them.

Garikayi spent most of his time following the politics of the day. He would listen to his portable radio into the night and read the daily newspaper twice over. What the local politicians were talking about, making Rhodesia independent of the British Empire, was frightening because it really meant that nothing would change. An independent country run by Smith would oppress the blacks forever. When Sheila told him she had heard Malawi was independent, he launched into a passionate explanation of how theirs was a real independence because their president was black, just as it should be on a black continent. But what was happening in Rhodesia was quite the opposite. Smith wanted to create an independent pariah state run by his white cronies with a view to keeping blacks subjugated. Sheila wiped her husband’s brow and kissed it. He always sweated when he was worked up.

‘Oasis had a lunch buffet today,’ Sheila said.
Garikayi shook his head minutely while inhaling. ‘Did you have the duck or the chicken?’

‘It was rice and beef and gravy.’

She ignored the sarcastic edge to his reply. He continued reading his two-day old copy of the Chronicle. He was down to reading the smalls. Even this he did with great interest. He circled certain advertisements, which Sheila thought was ridiculous without ever saying so. What could people like them ever buy?


The day they found out Sheila was pregnant was the first time they ever truly felt in control of something in their lives. For a day they enthused as if they were teenagers again, and didn’t disagree or bicker once.


Sheila had heard that the black people in America were thinking about coming back to Africa. They would all come in one big boat when the time was right. In the meanwhile they were changing their given names, their slave names, to African ones. She liked the idea, and she would borrow the concept to give meaning to her child’s name.

‘I think we’ll be doing a good thing by not calling the child Catherine or Andrew or anything like that. Our child must be different from the rest,’ Garikayi had been saying in the lead up to her labour. The pregnancy seemed to have had the miraculous effect of making him more agreeable.
‘That’s fine, but at the same time let’s not make it hard for the child to be accepted.’

‘Garikayi Jnr for a boy?’ he offered as they lay in the dark.
She was silent for a while. ‘I like your name very much, but the child still has to fit in, like a hand in a velvet glove.’

‘There you go again with your descriptions. Stick to the subject Sheila!’ he huffed and rolled over.

Their first son was born without complication at the local hospital. They called him Gentleman, Jent for short. They couldn’t agree on a revolutionary name and gave him instead a name in keeping with his demeanour, which in the first week was placid and dreamy. Sheila did what first-time parents often do and placed too much expectation on Jent. She badly wanted him to be demonstrably intelligent. When things improved it would be better for their son if he could make something of himself through study. She read what she could on intelligence and took to making posters of common objects to test his memory. She checked his recollection skills just before meals, which seemed to be when he was most cooperative.

When Jent was three years old she gave up on her efforts to prime him for learning. By now he was a thin boy. The tests stressed him, and he would avoid food just to put off the flash cards. Garikayi said nothing. He was strangely without opinion on her efforts and when she announced that she was stopping the tests, he barely looked up from his newspaper.

Then Sheila fell pregnant again. They called him Mason. This time there was no debate over the name. The nation’s politics were tiring Garikayi, but he was fully engaged in every discussion and debate and was lately troubled by a new set of curfews and how they would affect his working day. There were strikes and marches planned, and he was considering taking part in them.
‘So our son’s name is not important to you?’ Sheila asked.
‘Of course it is, but I trust you to make the right choice.’
She shook her head solemnly for a long time. Jent was sitting in the corner, playing with a set of blocks in that slow, deliberate way of his. Was it just her or had the new child failed to make them happy again as the first one had?


It soon became clear that Mason was different. Not only was his name not a form of resistance, but where Jent was dark and suffered from eczema, Mason was lighter in colour and smooth-skinned. Even his hair was more cooperative and lay down satisfyingly with the stroke of a brush. He seemed alert and smiled much earlier than Sheila remembered Jent ever doing. Once in a thrall of motherly love she dressed him in a denim two-piece safari suit and took him to work. Her colleagues passed him around with gentle coos and entertained him until he fell asleep on the shoulder of the white supervisor.

Mason was clearly a bright child and very soon after he turned a year old began to make little noises which were uncannily close to words like, ‘milk’ and ‘food’. ‘Do you think he’s a prodigy?’ she asked Garikayi once as they lay him to bed.
‘I don’t know, but there’s something special about him,’ Garikayi said. He too had noticed their brilliant new son and for a time had removed himself from the business of politics.


This early start and subsequent verbosity by the younger sibling silenced Jent, who until then had been practicing his own speech unsurely. Jent took to watching his brother operate as the star of the show, this little human being with large black eyes who quickly learnt the trick of the endearing response which could bring out exclamations of surprise from even the most indifferent relative. Some people even said he was as beautiful as a girl. When they said this Sheila smiled. She would look across at Garikayi and take pleasure in his grimly satisfied expression.

But Sheila did not have Garikayi back forever. When their sons were both active young boys, people started talking about the long-time possibility of Smith declaring independence. Garikayi explained to Sheila how this would be the death of their chances of freedom. The government had the war under control and it was so long since the freedom fighters had had any significant victories. He went back to hunching over the radio and burying himself in the Chronicle.

Mason
Mama was always making entries in a fat, dog-eared accounting ledger titled, ‘How the Moyos beat the government’. She called it a family book and encouraged us boys to add to it whenever we wanted. Just paging through this book would reveal to anyone how my brother was the favoured child. The book was filled with all the picture cards Jent and Mama used to look at together when he was a child. There were also all his poor school reports, but only one report of mine, and not even my best one.

If the book does not clinch it, I need only bring to mind my run-ins with our father when we were growing up. I was young when he started calling me this, but I still clearly remember him telling me I was a glory-boy. He said I had all the talent but I was spoiled. One day he said he had been a part of my becoming spoiled and that he would lead the process of my un-spoiling. He said he had taken his eye off the ball with me and if the freedom fighters could wage an unwinnable war then why could be not raise me the right way? I only remember this because Mama wrote it in the book.

Father and I clashed a lot. Mostly it was because I did not have the patience to sit on a stool next to the old Austin and pass him spanners. Sometimes we would spend the whole of Sunday fixing the car. Jent was better at it than me. He was more patient, more deliberate. He seemed to learn about the car’s engine just by watching our father work. Jent would crane his head and watch the parts as they came out. Sometimes he would leave his seat and stand next to father and the two of them would work the grime out from a messy part. What made standing around so painful was that the car would never run. Father said as much. He said he didn’t have half the parts and even if he got it going, he could never register the car because it was never his. He got it in a deal with a friend who promised to provide the papers but never did.

At first Father only allowed Jent to touch the engine when he needed a small hand to fit into tight places. My hands were even smaller than Jent’s but I was never asked. After a while Father would sit down and instruct Jent to do most of the work. Jent was always eager to please and mainly did the right thing. The times he found he was unable to perform a task because it was too complex or needed more strength made him scowl in anger. But his anger was always quick to settle. I would sit there praying for all this time-consuming nonsense to end.

To me all the spanners looked the same, except for a slight difference in size. The engine itself looked like a great big silent thing made up of complicated parts I could never remember the names of. Once when Father asked me for a shifting spanner I gave him a wrench, making him throw it angrily against the wall. ‘Do you think you’ll get away with this in the real world?’

Once I thought I saw Jent smile when my father asked me to pass him a 14 spanner and I got it wrong. I asked him later why he had laughed at me. He just shook his head in that slow Jent way and asked why he would find my discomfort funny. Jent was no good in school but he always had a practical side. I was the one who read endless story books and was not interested in mechanics. ‘You need to learn more than stories to get you ready for what’s out there,’ Father would say.

Mama was good at these times. She would call me away from the Austin and give me a task to keep me busy. This was the only time I enjoyed doing chores. I didn’t mind having to dice the onions and tomatoes. In time I became even better at cutting vegetables than she was. Other times she would ask me to lay the table. She and I would fill the table with steaming food and wait for Father and Jent to come in looking pleased with themselves and smeared in grease.

Mama would say, ‘Mason made the gravy.’ Father would nod and carry on eating. One time he said, ‘So my son has found his niche.’ Father used his hands and was not a tidy eater. I looked at Jent and felt he was trying to become a copy of our father. He even hunched over his plate, ignoring the cutlery, and stared into a faraway place while he ate.

One Sunday afternoon at the lunch table Father announced, ‘I need to check in on the depot later.’ My heart missed a beat. Anytime Father went to the depot on his day off he would take one of us in the front seat of the ambulance he drove. Jent and I took it in turns and didn’t stand for any change to the order. Today was my turn.

‘I’m going with Jent,’ Father said.
Tears welled up in my eyes.‘But it’s my turn.’
‘If the ambulance breaks down you won’t be able to help me fix it. What’s the use of that?’ he shot back.
Mama cut in. ‘Mason’s right, it was Jent’s turn last.’
Dad was leaning back against the chair back with his palms facing down on the table. He had opened a beer and his eyes were becoming shiny in the way they always did when he got drunk or angry. ‘No. Until he learns the name of one tool I won’t take him anywhere. It’s not as if he’s stupid, quite the opposite, he’s just not trying.’


I looked down and squeezed my eyes shut. I was trying not to sob loudly. I would get into trouble for that. Who in the real world entertained a crier? My shoulders shook. The table was quiet. When I opened my eyes Jent was looking at a far point across the wall. Father finished his beer and they were gone.

The first thing Mama did when they left was to sit me down and remind me that Father had not always been like this. She told me as she often did that when they were much younger, he was actually a jovial man. She tried to make it better by giving me the last two lemon cream biscuits she had in her handbag. I put them away for later, for when Jent could see me eating them. I went to the wardrobe where we all kept our clothes. Jent hated it when someone touched his things. He was far neater than me and had sealed his shelf with a yellow tea towel which he fitted as a curtain. He sewed a hem at the top and bottom and through these had threaded thick white string. Also, to make sure no one touched his things he fitted a tiny metal bell on the inside of the curtain. I drew the fabric back, trying to do it slowly so the bell wouldn’t sound. But how could he know what I was doing? He was right now bouncing on the front seat of the ambulance, watching the tall city buildings go by.

I took his church socks and with a sharp surgical blade I had found in the back of the ambulance cut tiny vertical slits into the fabric. The socks were so fluffy I couldn’t tell where I had cut, so I made longer incisions. I put them back. Next I took his best trousers. The blade went through the brown cotton fabric with no resistance. Next I tried it on his one silky tie, disguising my incisions by placing them between the diagonal blue and silver stripes. Next I did his black shoes – a different sound but no less satisfying. I was feeling so much better already.

Jent
Growing up, I had to look after my little brother Mason. At school, he was the smallest boy in his class but always got into arguments and then left the fighting to me. During break I made sure I stayed close to him, just in case he needed my help. I had to do this because Mama asked me specially to look after him.

Mason always had a victim complex. He had so much luck but even then it was always about how the world was against him. When we were children and Father asked him to name the spanners, Mason acted as if he had better places to be. It never worked with Father, who was quick to dish out punishment.

One Sunday Father took me into town. It was meant to be Mason’s turn but Father was not in the mood to be around him. It was late afternoon. Before leaving, I was supposed to polish our shoes for school the next day and Mason  probably sulked over having to do it. Mama chose us randomly for this job but I found myself doing it most of the time because Mason always got busy with something else. He would do a bad job anyhow, and I would have to do it again if I really wanted a shiny pair of shoes. It was like that with most chores my brother did.

The centre of town seemed different that day, quieter than other times. One time I was ill and Father had to drive me through town in busy traffic on a week day. Even as I lay against the door feeling sick I watched him sit so correctly and stiffly. I remember he told me that he had to be careful as a driver because if he had an accident it would always be his fault. On Sundays he could drive with less worry. But on this Sunday he was agitated. I could see it in the way he squinted his eyes and held the steering wheel tight.

We got to the depot and there was another ambulance and a few white men sitting around. One of them asked me what my name was. When I told him the man smiled strangely and left it at that and started talking to the others. I followed my father as he walked around the place. I knew he was one of only two black men who worked there, both drivers. Father said no one knew Bulawayo like he did, especially the townships. That day he spoke in a strange voice to the white men, he was finding all their jokes funny yet he had been so angry in the car.

‘Hey Moyo did you hear what Smithie did?’
‘How could I not? He’s declared independence,’ Father said.
The men carried on saying how it was a special day for our country, which was probably why a few of them had not reported for duty, too busy celebrating. One man said out loud, ‘What can the British be thinking about Smithie now? We are only the second ever country to formally declare independence from them!’
Everyone seemed really happy about this. I had never heard anyone talk about the Prime Minister as if he was their friend.


After an hour of sitting around and talking, Father announced he was leaving. We were not three blocks away when the radio started up.
‘Moyo, come in.’
He pressed the receiver. ‘Moyo, over.’

‘I need you to go to Essexvale.’
‘I'm off duty.’
‘Look, someone’s ill. Just swing by will you. Stabilise them and bring them in if need be, I know you can do it on your own. Let me give you the address.’
Father stared angrily at the black receiver while the man read something out. I could see the side of his jaw was moving as if he was chewing something. ‘I’ll be there, over,’ he said and turned the radio off.


The sun was getting lower. We drove for a long time out of the city and towards the farmlands. Dad was not even dressed in his ambulance uniform. He wore cotton trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. We turned off the main road and drove down a bumpy dust track. We got to a farmhouse which had white walls with green moss along the bottom. There were so many dogs in the yard. Some were running around the car and trying to bite the tyres. Some were barking and jumping up at our windows. Father told me to close mine. I did it as fast as I could. At least I knew which way to turn the lever – clockwise. I thought of Mason always turning screwdrivers, keys and window handles the wrong way.

Father stopped the ambulance in front of the veranda and sat looking at the dogs. He rolled the window down and tried to put a friendly hand out. He had told us once that no matter what our uncles said about them being trained to hate us, we should always try to befriend dogs. We had to offer the back of our hands for them to smell first. He said we should only chase dogs off in special circumstances. But these dogs were not listening. They were barking louder and louder and trying to bite his hand.

The front door was partially open. Father stared for a while into the house. There was no movement. He pressed the horn. It only made the dogs bark some more. Suddenly, Father squinted his eyes and asked, ‘Is that a hand?’ I looked for it but could not find it at first. Then I saw it. Someone was lying inside the house, and only their hand was showing.

Father was thinking what to do. He tried to open his door but the dogs tried to force their faces into the crack. He tried the two way radio. ‘Base come in. Base, come, in.’ No-one answered. After a long while the dogs settled down. It was almost dark. The dogs were sitting on the veranda while some were lying on the grass around the veranda stairs. They were all such big, heavy dogs. Sometimes one of them would go up to sniff the hand.

After we had been sitting very still for a long time, one dog on the veranda pointed its ears and sat up quickly. It ran round to the back of the house and the others followed. There was only a big shaggy dog left on the veranda which did not seem interested in any of the goings on. Father must have thought it was his chance. He opened the door and closed it quietly. He stepped softly and quickly towards the house. He was halfway up the steps when the dogs came bounding around the corner again at full speed.

‘Daddy,’ I shouted and slid off the seat and stood up. I remember the feel of the cold plastic dashboard against my hands. It all happened so quickly. The dog with the sharp ears was already jumping up the steps to catch Father, who had made a break for it. At the top of the stairs Father saw he was not going to make it into the house and put his hands out to calm the dog, which had stopped its run but was still advancing with its rump shivering. ‘Take it easy boy. Take it easy, stay down.’ It looked as if for the shortest moment that the dog was going to listen, but in one quick movement it slunk up to him and got onto its hind legs and bit one of his hands. The other dogs reached him and started to bite his fending hands and his legs as he moved backwards. The dogs were so big. There must have been six or seven of them. They bit into his thighs and thrashed their heads around once they had some part of him between their teeth. He was trying to talk to them but his words kept turning into cries of pain. ‘Hey man!’ became, ‘Haai!’

He fell down. They kept biting and thrashing their heads. He was writhing and kicking. He even got back onto one knee to fight back. But each time he got a dog’s head in his hands others bit his shoulder or his side, or his face, and he let go. The sound was terrible. I had never heard my father make these high-pitched noises. The dogs were growling loudly from their throats. The other dogs who could not get a piece were whining and running around in circles.

I was screaming, ‘Daaaaddy!’ My eyes were filled with tears. I was scratching the dashboard and pushing my hands against the glass. The troublesome skin on my neck was burning. After a while he lay still, but the dogs kept holding on and snatching their heads.

I passed out. When I woke up it was completely dark. The dogs were quiet. Father was lying on his back. His face was looking up to the sky. His arms were out at his sides. His clothes were torn. He should have worn his uniform. It was made from much stronger material. The dogs were sitting around with their tongues hanging out. One went to sniff his shoe, and then it came down the stairs and sat on the grass.


Sheila

The article, on page five, says nothing about why Gary was in that part of the country with no backup. It says that an African ambulance driver was found dead at a farmhouse, mauled by a pack of dogs. It says the farm owner, a Mr Brown (58), needed some assistance after passing out due to complications from an unnamed ailment. He was able to call for help before succumbing. The article speculates that the generalised excitement sweeping the country following the announcement of UDI may have triggered Mr Brown’s collapse. Mr Brown was assisted by a secondary ambulance and is now recovering in a city hospital.

I’ve added the article to our family book. My sons have grown out of helping me with this process and nows think it’s the silliest thing they have ever seen someone do. But the more they recoil from what I add to the book, the more I add. So it was nothing to attach Gary’s death certificate to these pages. And from his funeral there are two artefacts – the programme, and a photograph. In the photograph Mason stands in a miniature suit. Jent is in jeans and a t-shirt, all that he had left to wear after someone got into his good clothes. They look bravely at the camera. Jent has his arm around his little brother’s shoulders protectively.

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