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THE WAY I SEE IT – National Heroes Acre I

Bongani Kona

Who or what haunts you? Do recurrences draw you back in time? Are you nostalgic for lost futures? Does the present seem ghostly? These questions appear in a recent issue of the PEN America journal on the subject of hauntings, a subject I’d like to turn to in this brief reflection, because, lately ghosts have been on my mind. Since the coup d’état last November, I have been thinking about the dead. Although, to say I have been thinking about the dead suggests some choice in the matter. But we do not think about the dead – they haunt us.

A month ago, in December, I sat with my 97-year-old grandmother, Agnes in the dark of our living room (there had been a power failure), in the house I grew up in. I can’t recall now what we had been talking about before we stumbled on the Liberation War, the Second Chimurenga (1965–1979), a subject she hardly ever speaks about. My grandfather, Simon Kona, whose portrait hangs in our living room, was shot dead in 1979 – but that is a story for another time.

Those days, she said, it was not uncommon for a traveller walking along a dirt trail in the rural areas to be greeted by a skeleton. “Go and tell my family that this is what has happened to me,” the bones would rise to say. “Kwezo ntsuku kunabantu abanintsi abasuka emakhayeni abo bengavalelisanga,” she said. Scores of young men and women left their homes to join the war without saying goodbye properly, in the ritual sense. And now their restless souls, buried in unmarked graves, begged to be returned.

I want to take seriously this proposition, that our present is haunted by the dead, and that their presence might stir up disorder in these amnesiac times, when we are saturated with talk of progress, investor confidence, 100-day plans.

My own story of haunting begins on 14 November, at 10.35 am. H, a friend and colleague from Harare, and a former civil society activist asked what I thought would happen. We were in his office hunched over a computer screen. Like millions of other Zimbabweans resident outside the country, we were following live updates of events back home on social media. Tanks and armoured vehicles had sealed off roads leading to parliament and statehouse, and rumours swirling online said the president and the first lady had been placed under house arrest. Is this the end game, you think? I started to say something… um… but my voice sounded distant, unfamiliar, as if it belonged to a stranger standing nearby. I looked out the window, at the row of plane trees. Next, I had a sensation of whirling, of being knocked off balance. Vertigo.

In the days that followed, I had this sensation each time I tried to speak. I didn’t have a grammar for what I was experiencing. I had been dislocated from the present and possessed with thoughts of the dead. Adonis Musati (24), zigzagging across the street in Cape Town, and asking a construction worker for money to buy a loaf of bread. He died on the pavement, his legs and arms outstretched, after eating half a loaf and taking a few sips of water. The only meal he’d had in a fortnight. Washington King (21), “a Zimbabwean asylum seeker” according to the press, who died in a police cell in Woodstock (a neighbourhood I lived in at the time). He hung himself with his tracksuit pants on the cell gate, an hour after his arrest for an attempted house break-in.

Who will remember all of these deaths? All of this suffering?

My own reaction to this moment caught me by surprise. I had long turned my back on Zimbabwe. I think to survive, to live, one had to. “Women forget the pain of childbirth,” Joy Harjo writes, “All of us forget the moment of impact of painful accidents or incidents in our lives so we can go on, and not be haunted by the memory of shock and pain.” When I immigrated to South Africa in 2004 to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cape Town, aged 18 and full of rage, I had felt then the need to forget – or be consumed by rage. Outside of my family, and a small circle of friends, strangers now, who appear periodically on my Facebook feed, I disavowed any claim the country had over me. Sometimes, you have to sever a limb to save the body.

Like a chameleon, attuned to the presence of predators, I adapted my colours – mannerisms, speech and dress code – to fit the environment. I didn’t pass for South African – though a few people I knew from those days did – but I went out of my way to remove any outward markers of Zimbabweanness. “Oh, but you don’t sound Zimbabwean?” very often, nowadays, a friend or colleague will say. And true, I don’t. But this is an old story. The subaltern know how to read the signs that make them intelligible to the world, in order to subvert them.

But something else lurked behind my desertion. I had never felt like I truly belonged there. How to say this? Zimbabwe the nation-state is a paternal inheritance. Passed down from father to son as in the days of the Old Testament. When you line up to collect your ID, after you turn sixteen, you are asked to identify which village you come from (and it can only be the village where your father comes from), and who the headman is. These are questions which situate you within an ethnic cartography of the nation-state. But like many, whose blood carry complicated histories, of movement, of both conquest and betrayal, I cannot locate myself on that map. I have never met my biological father, and the maternal side of my family is made up of Xhosa speakers, who settled in the country in the late 1800s.

Paternal inheritance aside, the politically saturated question of who is Zimbabwean, and who is not, already at the root of the first crisis of the postcolonial state – the pogroms in Matabeleland in the early 1980s – narrowed considerably during the so-called Third Chimurenga. How else could the ZANU–PF state justify its excesses? Unless, as Judith Butler says, within that political schema “certain lives [did] not qualify as lives,” and therefore “cannot be apprehended as injured or lost [since] they are not first apprehended as living.”

In the 13 years I’ve lived in South Africa, then, I have been reluctant to give to Zimbabwe any more than it has already taken. And I have tried hard to forget the trauma, the suffering, and the rage (which is always a mask for grief). But the distance I had placed between myself and my country of birth shortened quite dramatically in October 2017. I had finished reading Hisham Matar’s astonishing memoir, The Return, part elegy for a lost father and part measure of Libyan political life under Muammar Qaddhafi.

The book’s centre of gravity is the disappearance of Matar’s father, Jaballa, a businessman and a leading member of the executive committee of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an opposition movement. In March 1990, having fled Libya in 1979, he was abducted by Egyptian secret service agents from the family’s flat in Cairo, and handed over to Libyan authorities. Handcuffed and blindfolded, he ended up in Abu Salim, the infamous maximum security prison, known as “Last Stop” – “the place where the regime sent all those it wanted to forget.” Jaballa Matar wrote three letters from inside Abu Salim soon after, but was never heard from again.

“My father is both dead and alive,” Matar writes. “I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future. Even if I had held his hand and felt it slacken as he exhaled his last breath, I would still, I believe, every time I refer to him, pause to search for the right tense. I suspect many men who have buried their fathers feel the same. I am no different. I live, as we all live, in the aftermath.”

Something cracked after I’d read The Return. Hisham Matar’s words chimed in the distance of my consciousness, like a church bell: I live, as we all live, in the aftermath. And by chance that October, I met my first ghost. A young man, a taxi driver, in his late-20s, haunted by the violence he’d experienced post the 29 March elections in 2008. A time which now seems so far away, but for him was as close, as present, as the breath in his nostrils.

ZANU–PF had lost the presidential race and its parliamentary majority and in response unleashed a wave of state violence, dubbed Operation Makavhoterapapi?”(Operation Where Did You Put Your Vote?). An operation presided over by the same army which would remove the president from office hardly a month later. “They are killers, those people,” he said, as he dropped me off, at the intersection of Long and Orange Streets, “Where is Itai Dzamara?” The journalist and political activist abducted from a barber shop in March 2015 is still missing. The question hung in the air as he drove away.

In that moment I felt ashamed. In my desire to forget, I had mirrored the regime’s cruelty: the denial of others’ suffering. What societies, what futures will we build on the back of forgetting? What kind of nations from historical distortions and silences? “What is a just society,” Thabo Mbeki is said to have once asked. His response: “a society that remembers.” Remembering. Remembrance. The refusal to forget. That is what the dead are calling us to do.

And so again I ask:

Who will count the dead?

Where will the names be written?


 This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.

The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?

To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop, or get copies from your nearest dealer.

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