Silence and dark humour seem like the most authentic way for people in Zimbabwe to deal with cross-generational trauma and mamhepo, the winds that carry misfortune. On a visit home to her ailing grandmother, Florence Madenga reflects on the silences that live in the folds of family – the “tying of ends that don’t want to meet”, the feigned dignity, nostalgia, and denial that are championed as resilience in the midst of ruin.
It is an early september morning in 2017, in Harare, and as I drive from the family house in the suburb of Mount Pleasant towards the city centre and Avenues Clinic, I try to remember the last time my grandmother was here. This city has changed, and over the eight decades of her life, the entire country has changed, through false starts and unpredictable crises. Unlike the old, wide-trunked trees with their bony branches leaning over the roads, shedding purple petals, some rooted there since the city was Salisbury, the rest of this city lacks calm and aged stability. The streets may be somewhat quiet for now, but as election time – scheduled for 2018 – draws closer, and as I mentally count how much cash I have left while I wait for a traffic light to turn green, I am restless. Soon, the government will be changing the currency from the US dollar that has at least kept the economy on life support to bond notes. I wonder if I should fill the gas tank before the inevitable long lines arrive. Despite protests, and stay-aways, and new parties and independent candidates, real, lasting change still feels far away.
But today is not about counting coins or cash yet, it is about meeting a woman I haven’t seen for at least 10 years, a woman whose name, soft brown eyes and blood I carry. I try to remember what she looks like. She has strong legs and laughs with her shoulders. Her fingers are long and her hands are hard. She can pick up a chicken in one hand and slice off its head with the other, bleed it out, and defeather it in near-boiling water in minutes. She has always towered over me, but feels gentle, and rarely lets her hair show out of her head wrap. In my memories, I see her outside her hut as we drive a truck towards the village, with her frame still a shadow in the dust, but her voice carrying over fields and into other people’s homes. I see her cooking rice and stirring globs of peanut butter into the pot, not coughing once from the smoke. I see her laughing too hard on the morning of our departure back to the city, as my gap-toothed seven-year-old self splutters that I’ve decided to stay with her forever.
Unlike my grandfather, who I find too loud and unapologetic for his many sins, with his rotund belly as evidence of his love of beer and other temptations – his presence a mockery of paternal love – I’ve always seen my grandmother as the more stabilising force, a diplomatic presence in the midst of family discord. It seems everyone has always expected her to be this way, even in impossible situations. So when I hear whispers of her occasional and unexplained illnesses, I assume she fights them away. When there is talk of mamhepo bothering her (a word literally meaning “winds” in Shona, but also signalling misfortune, or evil, supernatural spirits), I never think of it too deeply. When I hear one story of her only daughter, my aunt Zorodzai, finding a noose my grandmother intended to hang herself with, I bury it far, far away from my memories. Every few years there are mentions of a baptism or charismatic church revival to chase away these mamhepo. Or my grandfather’s many plans to take her to a witchdoctor for various physical ailments, while leaving her in financial ruin. I also push those aside. Then we never really talk about it.
Today is one of those times where she has an illness, but this time, I am in my late twenties, and I am here to see it for myself. This time, I am the only one in the Mount Pleasant house while my parents are overseas and, as I wait on my immigration paperwork for a few weeks, my uncle Paul announces that my grandmother needs medical help. He insists that it will include surgery, and thousands of dollars that are to be sent from the diaspora, to my pocket, and, I assume, trickle down to his. He drives her and my grandfather at dawn from the town of Chinhoyi to Harare, where they have just seen another doctor and been given a referral. He leaves them on a cold bench at the clinic before it opens, and before I arrive. I look around trying to find them, and see an old man wandering in the parking lot, in a faded, brown tweed suit too big around the shoulders, a puzzled face under a hat. It takes a few seconds too long for my grandfather to recognise me. He clutches at my hand a little too hard and leads me to my grandmother.
I have heard that almost two decades of an economic meltdown have devastated us as a nation in ways that many of us refuse to acknowledge. On the way to the clinic, while waiting in the parking lot, and while sitting in the waiting room in the doctor’s office, I have already seen the things on the surface that we acknowledge: there are the long, snaking lines of people outside banks, looking for cash. There is evidence of the severe unemployment that is estimated to affect close to 90 per cent of the population, and shaky prospects for the economy’s growth in a country recovering from one of the worst hyperinflation rates in history. The World Bank has called our predicament “the sharpest contradiction of its kind in a peacetime economy.”
Some say our financial woes have been a major trigger of our mental health crisis. They say there is no way we could forget or walk away unscathed. They say that there are only 13 psychiatrists and no more than 20 clinical psychologists in a country where an estimated 1.3 million of a total 14 million people suffer some sort of mental health issue. Many months ago, my American friends shared this news with me in incredulity, on posts on Facebook accompanied by yellow, open-mouthed emojis, links to The Washington Post, and casual conversations.
At the time, I swatted the news away as yet another “story from home” – disturbing, but then somewhat irrelevant, an unwelcome distraction from a life I was scrambling to build in Washington DC. I especially did not want to think about my grandmother. Other follow-up articles or posts touted inspiring and “innovative” ways to confront the crisis, merging old-school mental health with DIY approaches suited to the times and resources available, like “friendship benches”, where elderly women in the capital city sit outside clinics for accessible talk therapy. For a moment, while reading these, my discomfort dug its heels in, and I resolved that I definitely did not want to talk to or about my grandmother, or my troubled aunt – her only daughter – beyond cursory Whatsapp messages. I immediately felt guilty. There would be nowhere to begin, I reasoned. So much had already passed us by, been cemented and sealed in silence. There was no real language for it anyway.
Away from the numbers, statistics and Facebook posts about mental health and trauma, it’s not easy to talk about the things that are on our minds, the restless silence that engulfs the city. It never has been in my family. Over the last decade or more than I can remember, as political and economic crisis has engulfed the country we left and the others we’ve lived in, more “tangible” or seemingly more urgent matters have been a priority: looking for cash, finding jobs, shuffling between visas, marching on. Even in our homes, resilience has always been championed, and resilience means kukiya kiya, like the young men and women making the informal economy work for them – tying the ends that don’t want to meet. Sometimes it means expecting too much from those who take care of us and expecting our grandmothers and our mothers to be long-suffering nurturers during this crisis. In my life, it has meant knowing my grandmother from afar, and being comfortable in my own silence about her anguish.
The friendship benches are designed and described as a “problem-solving” therapy: instead of an intimidating room with a couch, there is a wooden bench under a tree. Instead of shooting out words like “depression” and “anxiety” and “bipolar disorder”, the “therapist”, an elderly Zimbabwean woman, starts somewhere we can, by identifying a problem, like unemployment or lack of cash, instead of a symptom or diagnosis. The conversation is centred around three approaches, with Shona names: kuvhura pfungwa (opening up the mind), kusimudzira (uplifting), and kusimbisa (strengthening). The word used for depression, kufungisisa, meaning “thinking too much”, captures what many have been struggling with and is less threatening than clinical terms. I think, maybe this will help me understand the mamhepo and whatever else has been following us. Maybe we can finally talk about this.
The bench my grandmother sits on now is cold, with peeling sky-blue paint, and she looks smaller than I remember. She wears a large, grey fleece jacket, a navy-blue long skirt whose hem hovers just above her black, faded tennis shoes. She slowly looks up at me under wisps of strong, greying eyebrows, and begins to get up but can’t seem to be able to straighten her back. As I swoop her up and lead her into the doctor’s office, her voice is the only thing that’s still the same, full of questions and inquiries and excitement, with a life and vigour that her body has been abandoning. “Finally, I have come to see you,” she exclaims, ignoring the fact that we have actually come to see the physician. “I am already better now that I’ve seen you, the mamhepo are already leaving,” she mumbles as I fill in her medical papers.
When we enter the office, I also begin to believe the mamhepo are on their way out the door. Despite the intimidating list of tests and names and numbers of labs and urologists the doctor is scratching on a scrap of paper, and despite the bleak medical opinion we are receiving, that there is a 90 per cent chance that a cancerous growth has taken root in my grandmother’s bladder, my grandmother can now sit up straight in the chair. She has taken off the heavy jacket and placed it in my lap, after insisting that I sit next to her while talking to the doctor. My grandfather observes the scene from a chair further away and closer to the door. The doctor asks why my grandmother waited until now to speak frankly about her symptoms, especially blood in her urine, when it all began in February. She looks at me and says: “Who was I supposed to tell?”
I think about all the things I’ve never wanted to talk about with my family. I think about the other woman at my father’s side of my family who is absent, Aunt Zorodzai, who I’m also afraid to go with to the friendship bench, or any bench for that matter. She has stopped speaking to my grandmother. I remember the last conversation I had with her on Whatsapp, in the beginning of the year, and my long silence after that. Since then, she’s locked herself for months in her house, where she lives alone and won’t talk to anyone, or she would answer the door when her younger brother, my uncle Paul, demanded to see her. I do not send another Whatsapp message. I hear of a mysterious sickness she has, of how she doesn’t look like herself anymore, how she’s wasted away, and how, when several men in the neighbourhood finally kicked her front door in, she could barely walk.
Later in the day, my mother calls and asks me if I want to see pictures of what she’s like now. I refuse. It would be hard to bury in the back of my memories where I’ve buried everything else. I already know too much. I remember the first time I didn’t want to talk about something with Aunt Zorodzai, the time her only son died. After I graduated from high school in New York, he wasn’t there when I took a trip back home to Zimbabwe. He never made it to 20. He had been planning for exams to make his way to university, something to do with maths. I remembered when we were younger and how he had smirked at my pencil scratches and clear aversion to numbers, as I butchered long division. He came to live with us during school breaks, usually in August, all the way from a remote boarding school, when the weather in Harare was thawing from the July cold. He never complained about my annoying whimpers and bratty attitude whenever I lost a game to him. He was taller than me, leaner than me, older than me, and better than me in many ways, but when he arrived, he always called me mainini (little mother) and masibanda (lioness), as was customary, and knelt on one knee in faux reverence.
But when he passed away while I was in New York, no one told me until two months after the fact. No one wanted to disrupt me too much at the end of a school year, or talk about what was going on at home, they said. No one said that one day Rashid said he had a headache. Then he lay down. Then he didn’t get up. They took him for a check-up. They said it was “only” meningitis, but since this was also Zimbabwe, the doctors were on strike. They said they wanted cash upfront. It was in the middle of a cash crisis. My grandfather decided to take him back home, think of other ways. He will get better. I imagine the place was probably quiet, probably dirty, with rusty hospital beds and people that didn’t care that the patient never complained. They took Rashid home to rest.
Where had he gone? Where was Rashid? I asked for days and months in my head, was he somewhere, lingering, or nowhere, void. When Aunt Zorodzai came to visit us after Rashid’s death, she seemed to have the same questions. She spoke faintly about the headstone that needed to be laid on his grave sometime in the future. But sometimes she shouted with her eyes. It was not the first time she had lost someone in her life, but this time it was the only child she had.
When her husband died, more than a decade before, she had come through the kitchen door, held by someone, who, in my memory, was a man who had seen her almost pass out on the street. At that time, we lived in the small, dusty, farming town of Chinhoyi, in the north of the country, but she had still travelled to us in her sorrow. “Where is my husband,” she had howled, inconsolable on the ground. She looked to her older brother, my father, and to my mother, and asked, over and over again. Her small body heaved. Her head wrap unravelled, wrinkled cloth and sweat wrapped her body. Grief swallowed her. As a small child, I looked, open mouthed, not knowing what death and distress looked like.
This time, for this loss, when I finally saw her, I asked with her: Where is Rashid? Mostly, her tears were dry. Sometimes I heard her utter things about killing herself. Sometimes she fought the winds by cleaning the kitchen in the Mount Pleasant house obsessively, scrubbing all the corners with hard sponge, and I watched her while I sat on a high stool by the counter, not knowing what to say. We were two women left alone for a moment in the kitchen. We asked each other with our eyes, where is Rashid? And we left the question in the air. And as the years went by, we never talked about it again.
I often fantasise about the thought of moving back home, now that things are “better”, but wake up when I realise that while sitting on this friendship bench, I would most likely be perched at a corner, terrified inside, and would disguise my discomfort by blurting out pithy comments. I think about the two times I’ve had to talk to therapists, once in boarding school after an emotional outburst in the dorm, and another in college, after a bout of underage party drinking that almost had me hospitalised. Both times, trying to talk about anything made me sit at the edge and tell smartass, bad jokes to dilute the air.
Our sessions didn’t last.
Perhaps, misguidedly, silence and dark jokes seem like the most authentic Zimbabwean way for us to handle cross-generational trauma, and I’ve carried it over to the diaspora: quiet, feigned dignity, nostalgia, and adamant denial in the midst of ruin. The photos, legends, stories and sentiments of the country then and now, of the male figurehead and patriarch of the country then and now, are hard to detangle, and it seems best to leave it alone, by acting like nothing is happening, or by shrouding pain with humour. When friends and lovers ask why this man is still in our lives after all the abuse, it’s difficult to explain that I both loathe and revere him. When the “coup” takes place, and his downfall seems near, I am both relieved and elated, but saddened that his theories of love of nation and blackness could not be. Our figurehead’s speeches at the United Nations are some of my favourites, as I exchange catch phrases and memes with my sister, even though the man’s real and perceived presence in my life has wreaked so much havoc, there is no language for it.
In our own family, we quietly tread around our own male figurehead, my grandfather, with caution, disgust and distrust, dangerously mixed with doses of nostalgia, reverence, gratitude and a yearning for his approval. We joke about his latest exploits, tears streaming down cheeks and shoulders shaking with laughter at the tortuous schemes he devises to milk money out of his own kin. We still send money home. We each, in our own different ways, wait for his death and see it as an end to the anguish he has brought to the family, but also fear an untimely death will leave us without answers. We wonder what we will become without him. My Aunt Zorodzai has already begun to cut ties with him, but we don’t want to talk about it. As the younger generation of the family, I’ve been carrying the tradition of silence and don’t know how to live without it, or put it down, or reawaken the winds.
After we leave avenues clinic and enter the Mount Pleasant house, my grandmother announces that she is hungry and hasn’t eaten since the day before. As she nibbles on a biscuit and sips on the only juice I have in the house, she opens a photo album she finds on a coffee table. I am relieved for a moment to talk about anything besides the medical procedure, or how much she hates needles, and how I had to hold her hand and rub her back as she winced and closed her eyes when the nurse had to draw blood. Looking through family photos, an otherwise intimate activity for many people, is, for me, a great replacement for real conversation and awkwardness. All I need to do here is point out who is who and give a summary of the event pictured on the Kodak paper. My grandmother flips through a long series of my childhood photos and lands on one she wants to talk about.
The photo is tucked between other dog-eared and yellowing images: riding elephants in game parks, swimming, large and colourful birthday cakes, weddings of people I don’t really recognise, my sister and I in the village pretending to make peanut butter, crowded family parties at my aunt’s small house in Chitungwiza. In this scene, I am not really looking at the camera. It is a sunny day in the early 1990s, before I can even tie my shoes, and I have short, cropped hair that makes me look like a boy. Seven children, barely more than four years old, hold hands in a circle. Their little feet thump around as they spin. Nine others look from afar, behind sun hats, wispy trees and monkey bars in the dusty playground. For once, I am not peeking shyly at the camera. Head turned to the side, hand clasping my neighbour’s, I am part of the action. Right foot up, I am part of the turns, following my neighbour’s lead. Tongue out, eyes ablaze, I am unburdened.
It seems as if, in the early 1990s in Zimbabwe, we didn’t know yet what we would be in for. About a year or two after that photo was taken, my family moved to Chinhoyi, north of Harare, the town that was known as the beginning and heartbeat of the Chimurenga wars. The children there played the same games. They all held hands and giggled when they all fell on each other in a pile of small hands and feet. They all had problems tying their shoes. They all thought the one white teacher spoke Shona in a funny accent.
More pictures would be taken in Chinhoyi. Me, cross-legged, and nestled between white, farmer’s children, blinking at the camera. Children on a stage, in a line, on sports days, holding hands. My head wrap falling off in the annual nativity play as I forgot my lines when Angel Gabriel told me I was with child. Back then, I didn’t know too much about farmers, or land, or the photos of colonial Rhodesia, the ones with dead, black bodies hanging in trees. Back then, “chimurenga” was just a word I had heard on television, accompanied with pictures of black, white and grey footage of guerrilla fighters and the gleaming faces of national heroes. Back then, the one white teacher hadn’t told us what her parents had done to live there and acquire land. My parents were just trying to forget.
Back home, as my parents remind me in Tanzania, or in the United States, we may be suffering, but we haven’t really had a “war” in decades, not since they themselves were children. We are not like the others, my mother reasserts, after another one of her UN work assignments in South Sudan, or when discussing her extensive work on the Rwanda genocide. She seems somewhat proud of this sentiment, the same way we were always proud that even though Harare had potholes eating away at the roads, traffic lights that more often than not didn’t work, and in 2008 even empty shelves in the stores, it was never Arusha, a small town with only one traffic light and one large supermarket, a dustbowl we had been sentenced to for my mother’s job at the Tribunal for Rwanda. We had peacetime, but without peace, and much later, a bloodless coup without real freedom or conversation to unravel the national trauma that had ensued from before her own childhood.
The various test results take almost a week to come out, and both my grandparents become more and more restless. Low murmurs of their voices begin before dawn, slowly getting louder, as their feet shuffle up and down the hallway, into the kitchen, and on the tiles in the living room. There are few things to do in the house, and they spend whole mornings and afternoons outside, sitting on white, plastic garden chairs in the sun by the wire clothes-line, watching laundry dry. My grandmother claims that sitting in the sun warms up her body and slowly melts various heavy spirits away, especially the ones that cling on her shoulders like sinister barnacles and make it difficult for her to leave her bed. By sunset, they have left through her toes, and she is lighter on her feet.
She makes a habit of walking slowly between rows of vegetables in the small garden in the backyard, past wilting collard greens, cabbage, tomatoes, and the tops of green onions sprouting from dry soil. She begins to talk about her own crops back in Gutu, and how they need her now that she can walk well again. Even though the doctor says tests indeed show an aggressive growth in her groin that needs to be removed, most likely with most of her bladder, she decides that she won’t be going back to any clinic or hospital. When Uncle Paul stops by the house, often mildly drunk, and reminds my grandmother that she needs to be cut open so that her bladder can be removed, she refuses to acknowledge him, though her eyes betray her terror. Phone calls from the diaspora tread lightly around the matter. No one wants to push an old woman into something she does not want to do, and risk being responsible for her death under the surgeon’s knife. When I attempt to discuss the potential treatment options with her, one which includes radiation therapy, she chooses to postpone the matter and gives my grandfather a razor haircut instead. When we go back inside the house for dinner, she teeters by my elbow as I cook, speaking about anyone and anyone else’s potential impending death and state of mind but hers.
For a somewhat reserved woman who won’t talk much about her feelings, my grandmother has surprisingly always been an effective and vivid storyteller. Unlike in Gutu, where my younger sister, Rashid, and I used to gather eagerly and cross-legged around my grandmother and warm up around the fire after dinner, the brick fireplace in the Mount Pleasant house is cold, and I’m the only one waiting for a story. Like in Gutu, my grandfather sits back, looks on and listens in, sometimes pitching in with a forgotten detail – confirming the existence of a devious mermaid who drowns naughty children in deep cold waters, or a cunning rabbit who leaves his “friends” in boiling cauldrons of hot water to die. He takes his place and asserts himself as the final authority or chief fact-checker.
Tonight, after our last supper together in Harare, the story is about love gone awry in Gutu itself. Of course, like most of her stories, the story might or might not be a metaphor, a lightly-veiled, coded tale about the dynamics and happenings of my own grandmother’s life. She begins with a familiar catch phrase – “have you heard…?” – and delves into the details of a primary school headmaster in a nearby village in the area, who was found in July hanging from a tree on a piece of wire, footsteps from his home. My grandfather is eager to speculate on the causes of the man’s demise. “He was having many problems with his woman,” he states, “This was the second one, and you know how difficult a woman can be.”
“The hanging took place not far from where we met,” my grandmother continues, in an odd and disturbing transition towards the oldest “love story” I’ll hear about my father’s side of the family. Perhaps even more than that of my own parents’ first meeting as high school students, at a funeral for someone neither knew very well. My grandmother’s eyes light up as she sees herself young again, at Gutu Mission High School in 1960s Rhodesia, with dreams to be a teacher. She is a soft-spoken girl having a little trouble with mathematics, and meets a young, faster-talking man a few grades above her who claims he can help her. She senses he’s looking for something more.
In a few years that seem to pass at breakneck speed, they are married and they are at a bus stop waiting in line to head back to Gutu from Bulawayo, after my heavily pregnant grandmother has visited my grandfather at his new job in the south of the country. Her feet are swollen, and she shuffles slowly behind others in line. She feels a swift kick in the shin, and a wet glob of spit by her neck, and shrieks in surprise and pain. Behind her, my grandfather chuckles through the smirk on his face, the same one I imagine he has now, in this room, five decades later. “You were walking too slow, and we needed to go,” he interjects, and my grandmother stops telling the story there. Unlike in Gutu, I don’t pester and egg her to go on after a pause, anxious to hear more. I know the rest.
I want it to end. In the morning, I wake up earlier than I have all month, before the murmurs and voices begin down the hallway. I count out crisp, green twenties in US dollars from the money I have left, now worth more with the worsening cash shortage than they should be. I empty out an envelope of receipts for the medical tests, stuff the money in, and carry it with me to the kitchen, where I begin to boil water for tea and cut large chunks of bread before my grandparents wake up to go back to Gutu.
I hear my grandmother waking up to go to the bathroom, where she will bathe, and then run water for my grandfather to take his bath, as she has been doing for as long as I can remember. I hear her then walk to the living room to wait for breakfast, and I take the envelope, and my chance, the one moment my grandfather will be absent from my grandmother’s side. I fold the envelope and put it in my grandmother’s shaking hands. This is for you, and only you, I tell her. Don’t tell him about it. She puts it in a deep pouch by her waist, and wraps a long, patterned piece of cloth around it, twice.
I don’t know when I will see her again. I return to Washington DC, and it could be next year, another eight years, or, if the growth takes over completely, never. Though I now pour her tea gingerly in her cup, I fight the urge to shake her, to ask her why she won’t risk the surgery, and why she is choosing to die. I grimace as I tell my grandfather to take care of her, because I know he won’t. I imagine as soon as she is gone, he will decamp from Gutu and start living with his other family in Bulawayo, in the house that my grandmother still refuses to give up her rights to. I want to cry when she tells me it’s just mamhepo that the doctors couldn’t see through the scans, and they will be gone soon, as they always do. In fact, now that she has seen me again after so many years, they have already gone.
I say nothing else. I pack her bags and groceries into the back of the taxi that will take her and my grandfather to the bus station. The driver asks if we are ready. I clutch at my grandmother before she shuffles into the back seat, and she senses my hesitation to let her go. Her eyes bore into mine, and she pauses. The sickness is gone, she assures me. I don’t believe her.
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?
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