The old bus groaned and laboured and churned out copious quantities of soot-black smoke as it meandered up the hill road. Inside it was stuffy, hot and overcrowded. Some of the passengers stood along the aisle and some sat on the steps at the door. The floorboard of the bus was liberally littered with holes which admitted dust in large choking clouds. Among the passengers were some who were smoking with careless abandon, adding to the sickening atmosphere. The passengers talked in pitched voices, almost shouting to each other trying to overcome the monotonous grinding of the old diesel engine. The wailing of babies and the tearing ear-shattering throb from the four 100-watt speakers added to the general confusion, according the bus a night club-like setting.
The bus was travelling form the Sunshine City of Salisbury to the tribal trust lands, commonly referred to as the TTLs. The carrier on the roof was piled high with groceries, baggage and other luggage. Here and there one could distinguish an ox-drawn plough, a tine harrow or some such other farming implement. It was a Friday afternoon and the city dwellers were on their customary weekend retreat to the reserves to see their dear ones.
It was customary for the womenfolk to stay in the reserves and look after the livestock and the homestead whilst the men worked in the cities. In any case, most employers provided hostel type single accommodation that was not suitable for families. Hence the famous Zezuru saying “kugarisa mukadzi kuruzevha sezvinonzi igejo” Loosely translated this means keeping the wife in the reserves like she is the ox-plough. Talk centred on the tense security situation in the trust lands. To the uninitiated from the city, it seemed the rural folk were exaggerating, blowing out of proportion the seriousness of the situation on the ground. The bush war being fought in the country had reached its peak and the lawlessness, suffering and rampant brigandage that characterises all wars had risen to sickening proportions. Everyone agreed that things were now the worst they could ever be. Armed robberies were now commonplace. Simple rural folk committed unmentionable outrages against their neighbours, their own kith and kin. The credit of course went to the vakomana, the so-called terrorists.
The rural folk were on the horns of a dilemma, panyanga dzaMushore. They were coming second best all the time every time, victims from both ends. The vakomana would come and accuse them of selling out to the Rhodies. They would beat the daylight out of them and it was not uncommon for an unfortunate villager to give the bucket one big kick during these so-called cleansing treatments. This would be a lesson to all and any who betrayed the people’s cause, that the price for selling out was death. Like they say in religious parlance, mubayiro wechivi ndirwo rufu, the wages of sin is death. Of course the story was repeated when the Rhodesians came. The villagers were subjected to torture, floggings and other humiliating experiences. Sometimes whole families were decimated, leaving only the sister married in another village or big brother working as Mr van der Merwe’s gardener in the city to perpetuate the family genealogy.
Nazi-type concentration camps disguised as protected villages were set up by the Rhodesians in the trust lands. Villagers were herded together into these over-crowded, filthy and cholera-prone camps or keeps. Barbed-wire topped fifteen-foot fences together with the perennial presence of heavily armed guards confirmed the villagers’ status as prisoners of war. The people’s traditional lifestyle was irreparably shattered and destroyed. Juvenile delinquency grew like a cancerous tumour within the unsophisticated rural populace. Parents lost control of their children, fathers their wives and families. Prostitution became institutionalised, including child prostitution, a phenomenon hitherto unknown in the trust lands. Sexually transmitted diseases reached epidemic proportions. Marriages broke down irretrievably. This was the price the vabereki had to pay for sheltering the vakomana.
At times the villagers were shut in these keeps for weeks at a stretch whenever the vakomana were sighted in the area. Livestock would break out of their stockades and ravage and destroy the crops. The result was that often people had not enough to eat. Malnutrition became very common among the children Lack of food and the inhuman and filthy conditions in the keeps raised infant mortality to frightening levels. Every day processions could be seen streaming out of the concentration camps to bury the dead. The people were wallowing in abject poverty and squalor, swimming in mucky and sewage waters, exposed to the vagaries and vicissitudes of war.
The original idea behind the establishment of the keeps was to starve the terrorists, the vakomana. The Rhodesian generals believed that the terrorists lived off the people. The terrorist threat would die a natural death if the people were prevented from offering shelter, material and moral support to the vakomana. Surprisingly, after the setting up of the concentration camps, no terrorist starved, no terrorist froze from the uncharacteristically cold winters. As a matter of fact, the war escalated. Some flea-brained general in Salisbury believed that in spite of the security measures in place, the black people were still able to smuggle what little food and clothes they could to the terrorists. Hit the munts harder, was the suggestion. The introduction of a concentration camp within a concentration camp was thus mooted. An inner stockade within the existing stockade was thus constructed. Anyone ever read Andersonville, the classic novel about the American civil war? The people christened these inner stockades tangwenas, this in reference to one, Chief Rekai Tangwena who had stoically and successfully resisted the Rhodies in his area.
Security was tightened. The guard complement was doubled. The people were subjected to humiliating body searches each time they left or entered the keep. Women were not spared either, the guards seemingly enjoying shoving their paws into the women’s dresses and bosoms searching for that morsel of sadza or piece of bread. Young women and girls would be asked to strip to near-naked, much to the amusement of the young male onlookers. Every villager was asked to surrender to the Keep Commandant, their stocks of grain and was put on a ration. Time tables for cooking and eating were put in place. No one cooked and ate as they pleased. If a visitor arrived after the set meal times, then he would have to fast until the following day. Imagine the confusion that ensued when ten thousand villagers lit bonfires to cook in an area the size of a football pitch. What with the dogs fighting over a coursing bitch on heat, cockatiels running after clucking hens and the August winds howling and raising hell and venting their fury on the crude shelters and huts. It was indeed another kind of life, if life it could be called. And yet in spite of all that, the sun continued to rise each and every morning, the stars would appear faithfully each evening – Nature was simply oblivious to the suffering that the white Rhodesians were visiting on the black people.
Corporal Bester Jonga also known to his friends as BJ, and in charge of the guard at the keep gate stood up from his stuffed chair, stretched lazily and started whistling a tuneless song. He was in the heavy-weight category, carrying two hundred and some pounds on his huge frame. Only three months before, he had been the much feared street-fighter BJ of Harare African Township in Salisbury. He was rumoured to have made several cracks at the National Heavy-weight title and it was said that the present holder, a white man of Boer descent, had refused outright to fight a munt. He had insisted that there was no way he could have traded leather with a bloody kaffir with a tail still sticking on his backside. And white Rhodesia was fully behind the man. The truth of course was the chap was scared stiff to high heaven of this huge man-mountain known as BJ.
Bester and a friend of his had waylaid an elderly African businessman, beaten him up thoroughly and helped themselves to his expensive clothes and wallet stuffed to bursting with Rhodesian greenbacks. The poor fellow later gave the bucket one big kick due to the serious injuries he had sustained during the mugging. Special Branch operatives had caught up with Bester and his friend sooner than they thought possible. As most of those born during the Zhii years will testify, the arm of the Rhodesian law was very long indeed. Jonga was almost murdered by the police during interrogation. He had admitted to the charge of waylaying Mr. Zvawanda, the businessman but said he had had no intention of killing him. He had submitted in his evidence-in-chief before the Salisbury High Court that they had only meant to teach the man a lesson. He was using his businesses to finance the terrorist assault on the Rhodesian government. His grandfather having been murdered by terrorists, the man said he had no sympathy for terrorists and any one who supported them. That alone was sweet music to the presiding Judge and his two assessors, both of whom were white. Checks by the court authorities had found out that the man had indeed at one time been fined ten pounds for collaborating with the terrs.
The courts were very sympathetic to people like BJ during those days. BJ and his friend were subsequently pardoned and were offered employment as members of the recently formed Rhodesian Guard Force, guarding concentration camps in the rural areas. After six weeks of basic military training followed by three weeks of indoctrination, Bester found himself in this camp, in the northern parts of Mashonaland Central Province. He was toying with his automatic carbine when an old woman, bending under a heavy load of firewood came up the road to the gate. She was puffing and panting, sweat cutting dendritic patterns on her dust covered face. Her feet were bare, cracked and chafed, some of the cracks so big one could hide a tickey coin in them, aive neman’a aityisa mudzimai iyeye. Her clothes were tattered and torn. She had sunken cheeks, her eyes lolling lifelessly in their sockets like a doll’s. Bester watched her with detached amusement as she crept up to the gate.
She stopped and fumbled among the folds of her tattered dress until she produced her stupa, or metal I.D. card which she held up to Bester. He examined her several times from head to toes and upwards again before snatching the proffered I.D. from her hand. Jonga studied the card for what looked like eternity before he looked intently at the woman again. Even though he could not read very well, having only gone up to the second grade at school, he was certain that the lively, fleshy woman staring starry-eyed at him from the I.D. was not by any means the same person as the one standing before him.
“You are sure this stupa is yours ambuya?” he asked her
“Of course ngosi, it is indeed my stupa”, the woman replied shifting under the heavy load of firewood on her head.
“But it says here that you were born in 1954 and that makes you twenty four years old. My arithmetic is very horrible but still I am certain that makes you twenty four years old.” Bester snarled and sneered at her like a bull terrier protecting its bone.
“You are right mwanawamambo that is truly my age.”
“And yet you look older by far than my grandmother in Harare?” Asked Bester with a snort and a sneer.
“I don’t know what your grandmother looks like but that I.D. is mine ngosi.”
Bester called to his mate in the guardroom who doubled up to him and saluted smartly in contemporary military style.
“Here Corporal!”, he yodelled, standing at attention.
Bester offered him the I.D. and sought his opinion as to the old woman’s age.
“What would you say is ambuya’s age Bako?”
“By all means not less than sixty, Sah!”
Bako was sure she had taken her daughter’s I.D. by mistake in her rush to look for firewood before curfew time which was now only a few minutes away. The woman was however adamant that the I.D. belonged to her. She began to shift listlessly under the load as she had stood there for quite some time.
She was no old woman at all, her first child only doing the third grade at the local primary school. A life of toiling in the fields and the hospitality of the Rhodesians who had been her dead husband’s and her hosts for three years had more than doubled her age. Of course she could not tell these guards of her extended sojourn at the district prison. How they had built a ten-foot earthen embankment to form a security enclosure for the prison, and that using picks, shovels, buckets and wheel-barrows. How she had been serially gang-raped by the guards during her two years before she was moved to the provincial prison. How she had been tortured during interrogation to force her to admit to crimes she had never committed. How they had laboured like galley slaves from dawn to dusk with fierce hounds superintending over them and on quarter rations. And above all she could not tell them how the Rhodesians had worked on her husband until he died because of the pain. How they had used electric shocks to destroy his manhood because he stood accused of aiding and abating the vakomana. How could she tell them that for weeks they had survived on a few ounces of left over bread and coloured hot water that the guards called tea. And how for supper they would get thin sadza prepared with mildewed mealie-meal and a few kapenta floating in water to accompany the sadza. How the guards, fellow blacks like them, diverted the prisoners’ rations and sold them for cash or exchanged them for beer whilst the prisoners starved, literally.
She did not realise that she was silently sobbing until a blob of tears dropped onto her foot, carving a welt in the dusty skin. For that time she had forgotten even the guards about her, and even the heavy load pressing down on her emaciated neck. She was pained that these guards were calling her gogo, ambuya, when she should be at the prime of her womanhood. It was the Rhodesians who had reduced her to a skinny old hag in three years, each of them a decade. It was the prison guard who had smashed out her front teeth with a rifle butt because he had felt she was slothful at her work. It was them who had widowed her, and it was them who were making her live this wretched life. Whilst the whites were reclining in their posh and cosy suburban homes in Salisbury, Umtali Bulawayo, Gwelo, Fort Vic and all the other urban areas, away from the arena where the war was being fought, away from any real danger, they were using blacks as their running dogs to fight other blacks. These guards were victims of circumstances, just like herself. She felt some nauseating sympathy for them and found it difficult to be angry with them. They were only tongs after all! Vaive mbato.
“Search her Bako!” barked Corporal Jonga at his subordinate.
“Yassah!” Cried Bako, in a high pitched contralto voice.
“Put that svinga pasi ambuya and undo it. There might be an AK rifle hidden there.” Bako was rude and cocky in his manner. He hated these rural folk, especially their womenfolk. His white trainers had explicitly impressed on him that Rhodesia was suffering because of these rural folk. It was them who cooked for the terrs; it was them who sheltered them, slept with them or gave them their daughters to sleep with. It was this same woman or one of her ilk who had for nine months carried and nurtured the growing form in her belly, it was her who had laboured and brought forth a gandanga, a terrorist. Without them Rhodesia would still be the land of the dollar, the Garden of Eden that it had always been. Without these women, these terrs would have stood no chance against the well oiled juggernaut that was the Rhodesian army. And thus he had been told in no uncertain terms to treat these peasants the same way he would treat a terr if ever he had occasion to deal with one. It was the magandangas who had murdered his parents in cold blood simply because he, Ruramayi Bako their only son, worked for the Rhodesians. To high stinking heaven with the whole lot of them, he had the right to work and earn a living like any decent fellow.
Widow Pashoma deposited her bundle onto the ground and undid the lashes. Bako ordered her to put the logs to one side, one at a time. All the time he was watching her closely. He then ordered her to jump up and down five times so that any hidden grenades would drop to the ground. Mai Pashoma raised her emaciated arms and did as she was bid. Her withered breasts, two wads of muscles, flapped up and down in rhythm with her jumping. As she jumped he kept prodding her with the muzzle of his FN rifle. He was very thorough and seemed to be enjoying himself as evidenced by his whistling a Beatles air. At last he let her go.
“Can’t you help her with the load Bako?” asked BJ.
“I would have to see hell frozen first and the fiends of the Devil disporting themselves on ice-skates before I could even entertain that thought Sir.”
“Musakanganwe kubikira vana vamasiya kusango ambuya!” They both chorused after her. (Don’t forget granny, to leave food for the children you left in the bush or something to that effect)
They watched her in silence as she struggled with the bundle until at last she had it mounted on her head. She trudged along slowly until she was swallowed by the maze of thatched huts and shacks.
“What do you think about this Bako?” Asked BJ.
“What do you mean Corporal?”
“I mean what you think about that old hag, you oaf of a private.”
“I only think that I should have given her a rifle butts in her withered behind.”
“I mean what you think about her being twenty four years old.”
“If anyone lived the lives these people do then they would be white-haired before they saw thirty Sir.”
“Then you believe she is twenty four years, do you?”
“Of course she is, Sir. Things aren’t that cosy on their side of Rhodesia. I understand they call it Zimbabwe, after those stone ruins near Fort Victoria.”
“And they believe those communist rodents when they crawl out of their holes at night and promise them life in Garden Eden when the baases have been driven away. How unfortunate.”
“Sure, you are right stereki Corporal, the white men will drum up all the honey and milk and smuggle it to Europe when they leave. Remember what the Portuguese did in Portuguese East Africa or Mozambique as our friends call it and Lenin Machel had only the God-forsaken soil to inherit?”
“But I thought these guys always said they were fighting for the soil and calling themselves sons of the soil. So they will have won, at least the soil that is.”
“All right then, our communist brothers will have nothing to inherit except this cursed earth that we are now standing on.”
“And what will happen to us Sir; I mean when Comrade Mao and his mob march into Salisbury and lynch the Prime Minister like they always say they will do?”
“I suppose, my dear Private Bako, that we would have had it. For when the meek inherit and rule the earth, it will be a very different kettle of fish.”
“Till that time then, we should continue to enjoy. Ngatidyei mwongo wenyika mwana wamai whilst time is still on our side Corporal.”
They all laughed raucously, slapping each other on the back. Like the Swahili say, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers and when elephants make love it is the grass that suffers still. There was nowhere to run, in front the enemy was there and behind the enemy was there. More like being caught between a rock and a hard spot like the English are wont to say.