By Derick Matsengarwodzi
My most cherished Christmas moments are secured in my jovial collection. If ever it exits. Back then as we slowly got accustomed to the festive practices, it was all merry as relatives shared a few earthen pots of beer without a single protest. The brew was perfected by women who had reached menopause using ‘secretive ingredients’. Early in the morning we slipped into our new clothes and streamed into the Catholic Church for the Christmas Mass and to receive the Holy Communion. Children performed biblical tales and passionately recited carols for the congregation.
After the service we headed home for the prepared feast. Family lunch was to be served. At noon we shared slices of cakes; danced all-night giving peace a chance in honour of new beginnings. We showed off our new presents. Your enemy became a brother, in that order. Neighbours gathered jointly to celebrate sharing different, rare food recipes. Local urchins even got a rare scrub and maybe a swig from the communal mug too. Dinner followed if we still had space for more treats. In towns, we pounded the municipal metal bins, a clandestine custom signalling the dawn of a New Year.
Customary celebrations in the village were always affordable and pleasant though. They were mutual, more so than in towns. So villages became an alternative sanctuary for many. After all, it was a moment and place to reconcile and recollect with distant relations. Now all is history. Roughly two days before observing the righteous day. We all gathered before sunup to prepare for the journey. The route to the rural areas remains a challenge, more so for first timers. Families endured carrying luggage against massive crowds at Mbare bus terminal, one of Harare’s oldest ghettos. Herein, long distance buses conspired to hike fares anticipating more travellers like us.
I recall the final year we went home. The year was 1992. Various goods loaded on the rundown bus included scotch carts, building material, home groceries and agricultural inputs. After a prolonged huffing and nudging amongst sly pickpockets, we later squeezed inside just before daybreak. As the norm, the talkative loader packs the bus up to the doorway. “You have chosen the ‘Road Jet’. You will get home whilst your bread is still fresh and your beers still cold,” he declared, in arrogant flattery. By then the bus was like a furnace. The passageway had no spare space to move. How we got past the curious police roadblocks still remains a mystery?
While we waited for departure, I had time to source a bite. It was the rain season; the market was flocked with food peddlers, especially of roasted corn. Each time they entered the bus, the tempting aromatic smell of neatly suspended cobs on forked wires lingered in the air long after they left. It made me crave for food. “Why don’t you go for something that is not sweet? Maybe you can have some fruits,” suggested my parents. Against the wise counsel, I picked on a cream bun. The white cream plastered on top was irresistible for me. The bees buzzing around confirmed its rare appealing taste. How could I? I insisted. She gave in. I escorted it with a bottle of Tarino, my favourite soft drink then. After that I felt the satisfaction that I had longed for. It was Christmas after all. Feasting was the cornerstone of the celebrations.
Mbare bus rank nestled into Harare’s busiest suburb is doubly celebrated for its innovative hawkers alongside its marauding cunning conman. Kwayedza, a weekly vernacular tabloid always screams with sad headlines especially at year-end. That year a farmer visited the city to purchase inputs for his plot. He later met ‘MacGyver’. “My name is ‘MacGyver’. I can assist you to get the best, cheapest services in town at a very low price - only if you allow me.” The old man was pleased with the introductions.
‘MacGyver’ soon found his target. He said he was an agent for an Asian company importing day old chicks. The hatchlings, according to him would attain maturity in lesser time bringing high returns to you. He added: “This breed is best-suited in areas like your home area, baba (father). This is the best deal you can ever get. And remember, this is offer is only for you,” the sweetener continued. The man changed his initial plans and purchased two cartons. After a week the hatchlings were miniature cockerels while the hens gathered straws to lay eggs. When he returned, the conman was now a gold dealer.
Eventually the bus reversed from the parking bay. Now I was feeling stomach cramps. Nearly halfway through the trip, the pain was worse. I could not withstand it. When the driver finally stopped for recess, it was too late. The journey had to proceed. Our grandparents were waiting eagerly. A few hours later the bus was still puffing towards the village. For a change, it was a spectacle to see the mist building on mountain peaks. From a distance they seem to be dancing for their visitors’ attention; they appear to value your presence, wishing us a safe passage. Their swerving, interlocking, surging peaks kiss and mingle marvellously forming a distant blue layer. And during the year of plenty they spit light showers cooling the scorching earth. The drooling showers are said to offload bad omens from the city. Along the way we offloaded passengers into a longing embrace by relatives. “We thought you were not coming at all,” the greetings commenced. “We have already slaughtered the goat before you came. Welcome kumusha (home). Let’s go home and celebrate.”
We were finally there. The only township tavern with a fading, hazy paraffin lamp and an old freezer was our bus stop and the community meeting place. After a breakfast of bread and Mazoe drink, everyone gathered at the shops. The museve (local) music from the solar-powered stereo united us all. Most homes did not have electricity, so the shops played a major social role at Christmas. Youths in matching clothing danced in sync raising the summer earth to the delight of many. There, our fathers drank traditional beer and ate mazondo, cattle feet for lunch. The cow slaughtered for the community was a sacrificial present for the ancestors for guiding the family. Inside parts such as liver and spleen were roasted and served to men only who ate with no salt around the dare (fire place).
By the time we thought our night was concluded, uncle Zakes from South Africa would arrive at cockcrow in his colourful Zephyr. His radio played Kwaito. “This is the music,” he would declare, “you must listen to the latest beats.” he mocked everyone. Soon villagers gathered to see his wonder wheels. He told story after story. One was of a man who was skinned alive while he cried out his mother’s totem. “We just looked at him and did nothing because you could become the next victim if you said something wrong. “Johannesburg is not for sissies.” he cautioned. That same year he brought along another new bride. It was the second one in two consecutive visits. Celebrating new brides remains part of the village rites. With Christmas, it became a double party. Only that this one was lighter in complexion. He also brought me a ‘new bike’. “I bought it from the shop a few days ago for you my son,” he claimed although it was clearly a second hand. Still it mattered less. It was the best present that I ever got from him.
Villagers danced, chanting around the bride with all their might. High-pitched voices aroused the sleepy village. “Muroora tauya naye nemagumbedze (We have brought the bride to her husband’s home).” The bride would complain: “Zakes, I don’t understand what your people are saying. Please tell me what is the meaning of all this? She protested. He would calm her though. “My people are your people, sithandwa sami (my sweetheart). They are just happy to see you.” The night would eventually fade in for daylight. A few days later, he would disappear like his arrival. And nobody heard of him until the next Christmas day. After his unsolved death in Hillbrow, Christmas was never the same. I will always miss his presence during our yearly family gatherings.
Years later, when I got back home from South Africa, my friends would be waiting. “Tell him to come to the place as soon as he arrives.” the over-emphasised message will say. That night after a revival braai, we will sit in our meeting place, the Night Givers Cafe before I hit the village to revive uncle Zakes yearly rites. Few family members now make the trip. Many are scattered around the world observing different, alien rites.
Back in the city, the night will gradually age while our voices turn hoarse from the karaoke music. We will reach our celebratory peak minus Forget who has now relocated to United Kingdom. I will devotedly sip on my Castle brand lager - Remember will opt for an extra matured single malt whiskey, a mark of a high life. After all he is now a ‘diamond dealer’. Freedom now favours Windhoek lager, his newly adopted drink in his present location of Namibia. Back then it would be four of us, before Forget’s sudden departure. He is not part of us but our group’s Xmas rites go on. We will chat about our new respective settings and the golden days.
One year Freedom and I were once guests in police holding cells during one previous all night drinking gone sour. As we left the bar, lagers in hand, together we walked towards the car park. Then police patrols were regular in pubs as patrons were harassed for engaging in so-called sacred political debates. We had left after the usual last rounds. In a flash, a constable emerged from the dark alley. For a moment we both thought he was a mugger only to notice his uniform just on time to restrain our attack. He withdrew his cuffs and arrested us. “Ava ndini ndavabata (these are my prisoners),” he excitedly addressed his seniors. The squad marched us back to the police station were we spent the night.
Earlier that night, at the pub Forget’s phone call had interrupt us. “Hey guys, I wish I could join you back at our spot. I am sorry I cannot be there with you. All the same have a merry Christmas, although things can never the same when we are worlds apart,” his tone of regret echoed. Promptly we purchase a round for Forget’s toast. “To everlasting friendship,” I declared. “To long lasting comradeship,” they all repeat. As dawn beckons, we stagger together towards the car with a promise to reunite again next year. If God willing.
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Derick Matsengarwodzi is a Zimbabwean journalist currently working in South Africa.