by Marko Phiri
It was one of those days when the new neighbourhood was so drab it constantly reminded me of the noisy excitement of Bulawayo’s township streets that always were bustling with life. You just had to love the crowd - coy pregnant teenagers with extended belly-buttons pushing the now tight T-shirts, toothless grannies daydreaming about Ian Smith, old Malawian dandies who still insisted on waking up in the morning, dressing up, formal shirt, formal trousers, neck tie, shinny shoes, then sit all day under the shade of the mango tree and watch the world pass them by, skinny dogs whose ribs you could count from meters away, the busy bodies who stood each morning with brooms in hand pretending to tidy the yard when in fact they were dissecting neighbours with unflattering whispers, the young jobless men milling all day by the local pub and knew the pay days of virtually everyone who patronised the local joint.
It was here, on one of those typical Bulawayo high density streets where commuter omnibus touts first hung out at the pub and took into their already not-so-healthy bodies copious concoctions of psychedelic substances that would kill an ordinary guy. It was here where these very young men, now under the influence, jumped into moving omnibuses to began what they proudly called their working day as very loud touts. It was here where these young men bought the opaque beer popularly known as a Scud (Named after the Scud missile because of its potency.) gulped the contents, looked for a used condom, threw it into the container then walked to the counter where they complained loudly and demanded “a replacement” or else they would take this gruesome find to the local tabloid. It was here where these daredevils uttered all kinds of profanities and then wondered why men and women old enough to be their parents were kicking up a storm. For some strange reason, I always found myself missing all that and more.
It is here where you invited a couple of young men to your home to help you erect poles for the washing line and one of them strays into the living room and steals a rack of compact discs. And you of course wondered what the hell they wanted to do with such music which they obviously did not understand and therefore wouldn’t play it, but then here, anything and everything was considered of some value, and a CD could buy them a litre or two of their favourite opaque beer. It was here where young lads collected used mobile phone recharge cards, the way other people collect stamps or old coins, painted over the numbers using nail polish then stood by the traffic lights at night and sold the recycled cards to unsuspecting motorists.
How I missed the know-it-alls who always had ready - tall tales to tell in between requests to buy them a scud or a calabash. If you found them in a daring mood, they would ask you to buy them lager, and not just one, but as much as you stayed for a chat. Actually, one chap made a stopover at the local watering hole on his way from work and one of the lager louts approached him and said, “Make me one bra.” making his intentions known that he was thirsty for the liquor and a pint of lager would do just fine by him. Guy replied, “Sorry mate, don’t have anything today.” Lager lout responded, “How can you say you do not have anything when you got paid today.” But knowing the culture here what can you do, you just buy that opaque beer if only to encourage the damn lies from the know-it-alls and let the hours pass, especially when you know there is no electricity back where you are from and the pub provides the only place where you can while away the hours.
While this was exactly the same stuff that had partly made me move to a quiet neighbourhood in what was once a leafy suburban escape, I still found myself drawn to the township madness, and each time I thought about visiting the old neighbourhood. I kept thinking about the words of one old soul who said when I left, “Be careful you do not make regular visits, or else you will want to move back because you will realise how much you miss this place.” He spoke like he knew what he was talking about. Debating the visit within myself made me realise well, that maybe the chap had a point but I still found the temptation too hard to resist.
When you make that trip to your old neighbourhood, you damn well make sure you have enough in your pocket, not just for the old lady, but for the usual chaps who will mob you and from whom you would want updates about who died, who had joined the great escape to South Africa, who was screwing someone else’s wife, who was living with HIV, who did what and other such ghetto gossip, and woe betide you if you expect to be told these stories for free. You became that guy who visiting from the diaspora and just have to be loaded, never mind that the diaspora guy spent the past six months jobless and loitering the streets of London or Jo’burg or Baghdad looking for the devil’s coin. “See, he left us to live in the mayadi but he can’t afford to buy any beer. Why then is he here?” the boys whisper rather cruelly. Mayadi of course being the formerly exclusive white neighbourhoods known for their big yards.
Thus it was that I made rounds in my old neighbourhood and had a mini tour of the favourite haunts of the good old boys. Still found the usual crowd and met some ladies I knew back then, long before the Bulawayo City Council closed its beer halls claiming viability problems. These municipality leisure centres used to teem with ladies of the night with faces coated with generous layers and layers of talc and very loud perfumes as part of some kind of beauty therapy. It seemed to work as old men fell for it and could be seen with one scrawny arm around the waist of some mysterious lady who in turn giggled, feigning shyness of a virgin as they disappeared into the dark. I knew the ladies I was presently looking at as part of that giggling sort and who made no attempt to hide where the money that was sending their kids to school came from and were known to double as shebeen queens, as they were rather unflatteringly called. Some kind of queens, huh? Elizabeth would be scandalised. Purists claimed these women were doing the devil’s bidding, but a prominent female legislator did not agree as she took them under her wing, maintaining the women were simply responding to their economic circumstances and was actually pushing for the legalisation of the trade. I found these ladies still at it, ostensibly enjoying lagers which they apparently liked hot as it seemed to take them hours to down a 330ml pint of their “favourite” booze. It was here where the girls wore loud perfumes and the boys, well, wore loud armpits and had no problems breaking wind in the crowd, mixing smelly opaque beer farts with cigarette smoke, nearly killing those drunks with weak lungs. It was here where prostitutes stunned potential clients by their esoteric tastes.
“What will you have, soft drink or beer?” guy asks.
“Coke please.” The prostitute replies.
Guy brings a cold Coke that’s already been opened by the barman like they do in most pubs. He places it in front of the prostitute who says, “Sorry but I don’t drink Coca-Cola.”
Every cool drink became a Coke, every toothpaste became Colgate, and every floor polish became Cobra. You just had to love it. Thus it was here during my little pub crawl that I met two such ladies who this one time were at the centre of ghetto gossip that they were literally die-hard types seeing virtually all their friends and former lovers had succumbed to The Virus. And the two were themselves at one time “written off” because of their apparent poor health with every Simbarashe and Sarudzai seeming to be in the know that they each had one foot in the grave because they were visibly ailing “with all the signs of HIV”. Yet here they were enjoying hot lagers and the company of strangers looking as strong as horses and obviously loving the attention from the ogling eyes of all types - skinny tipplers with rapidly aging faces because of rabid gulps of undiluted spirits, pot-bellied types who seemed to flaunt this rotund protrusion of their abdomens as a sign of living the life. But I figured living the lie was more like it as they were celebrating obesity. So as I stopped by for a chat, and naturally perhaps, they asked that I buy them a couple of pints of lager and I obliged, perhaps like people who last saw each other do. Just as I was placing the beers in front of them, a chap I knew back in the day came along carrying three pints of lager. Pleased to see him, I extended my greetings, but the chap was mysteriously peeved, pointing a finger at me said rather menacingly: “Wena mfana wena.” (young man, you better watch out; young man watch out.). Turns out he wasn’t concerned about my health seeing the company I was keeping. The three lagers were in fact for him and the two prostitutes. Turns out he was imagining I was muscling in on his action as the two laughed out and told him “No…no...no…he is our younger brother.” I laughed in his face and left him to enjoy the company of the prostitutes and what would obviously be vagina dialogues.
“JB, JB,” I heard someone call out. I looked over my shoulder and saw a chap I knew as a teacher.
“Holla, holla,” I returned.
I went over to where he was sitting with a couple of guys, happy that at last I could sit down and get “news updates.”
“How’s things bra,” I said as he signalled for me to sit.
It was one of those pub seats made of hard wire that left your ass stripped and feeling like it belonged to someone else as you could no longer feel it.
“Good, good, it’s been ages,” my old friend said rather gleefully. There sat here three guys and on the table were countless empty bottles of pint lagers and I figured these chaps must have been here for a while and obviously were itching for more. I sensed I was in for a buying spree.
“So how is work?” I asked. “I heard Minister Biti has finally agreed to give you the diamond money.”
“Ha! You wish.” one of his friends quickly responded. “We are still buying him beer.” They burst into giggles, loving the chance to take a dig at a teacher, someone considered by many here as “educated” but still very poor.
“You know what man, we get these salaries only in newspapers,” the teacher offered ignoring the jibe. “I hate these people, especially the old fool who thinks he owns this country.”
I was a little jolted as I looked over my shoulder to check if there were any suspicious looking eavesdroppers. Even in pubs, especially in pubs, could be found spooks eavesdropping on drunks freely expressing themselves about the politics of the country.
“I hate Zanu PF.” the teacher went on as he took in one final gulp of his lager. It was obvious he was enjoying his beer, the only problem was that he was bitter at one political party he was ever ready to blame for what looked like his perpetual penury despite his education. Apparently he wasn’t done yet. He was the epitome of frustration. The conversation continued and the beer flowed generously until a rather thin security guard went about telling the patrons to take final gulps of their brew as it was closing time. I always ask myself why these security guards almost always have to be on the impoverished side of things. For a job like this, surely a bit of muscles should be a requirement seeing this is crime fighting of the super-hero type, and despite being visibly asking for an extra meal, you see the security guard carrying a baton stick which they presumably will use in their night duties to fight bad guys. You see an old soul, perhaps into his seventies, rightfully a pensioner, working as a security guard and you weep at the cruelty of employers. Ain’t that a shame? We made a beeline to the exit, and milling about was a motley of laggards, the type who still want to hang outside the pub when they have been told the joint is closed for business. As we came out, me, the teacher and his two chums, a guy politely asked the teacher to come over. The teacher obliged, and by some unspoken cue, we made sure we were within earshot.
“Can you repeat what you were saying in there to your friends?” the stranger politely requested.
He had led the teacher to where four or five men stood under the shades of a giant tree that blocked the sole flood light that stood outside the pub.
“What?” the tipsy teacher asked rather dumbfounded.
“You thought you were funny in there, may you please also amuse us?”
“So you think the revolutionary party is responsible for your poverty? You think the president who brought you the freedom to move at night is crazy huh?” another quizzed.
Despite it being dark, you could actually see through the seriousness of the matter and see the scowls on the faces from which came with the quizzing. As we moved closer to ask what the problem was. I wished that I had stayed behind the high walls of action-less, unexciting suburbia.
“So you are the people who go about working with our enemies to undermine a democratically elected government,” a man in the shadows bellowed.
By God, are there people who actually “speak” that kind of nonsense? What democratically elected government when everyone knew there was this shitty political marriage after the man these goons were acting on whose behalf had stolen one election too many? But I knew that was a cue for me to make good my disappearance. I was later told the teacher was left with burning cheeks after the protectors let fly huge palms to his bony cheeks for insulting the president and the party. But what can you do but carry a grudge for the rest of your life, that is if you can afford such a taxing luxury that only results in cardiac arrest? But they still reminded me of the old joke about political Protector Plus condoms, a popular brand of cheap prophylactics that littered the township and CBD streets of Bulawayo, a sign perhaps that the denizens were indeed practicing safe hanky panky, never mind that the safety was ironic as some of the hanky panky was with married women, a very dangerous undertaking by any standard. These political protectors would go the way of the rest of the condoms – used and thrown away by the political elites without blinking. Only problem was, the protectors tormenting the teacher believed their own crap.
To comment and talk about this piece with the rest of the KR Community visit our Facebook Page.
Marko Phiri is a Zimbabwean writer and journalist. He has written dozens of short stories, short film scripts and has also produced a short film. You can read more of his work on Kubatanblogs and on his blog.