Zimbabwe’s history has been punctuated by years of conflict: the first chimurenga, resistance against the occupying white settlers (1896-97); the second chimurenga, the liberation war (1966-79) against the Rhodesian state; and the third chimurenga or ‘war for the land’, the uprisings and forcible removal of white farmers from their land (c. 2000-05). However, the idea and language of war has frequently been used to imply that any opposition or dissent in peacetime may be interpreted as enemy action. One such example is Gukarahundi (c. 1982-86), when the Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, purportedly in their search for ‘ZIPRA dissidents’ over a period of several years, killed thousands of Ndebele civilians in what is often glossed as a ‘civil war’.
This painful, contentious, and hidden period is a focus of disturbing recollection in Matabeleland, whereas it is barely understood and rarely discussed in the rest of the country except in broad journalistic terms – should, for example, the government apologise? Or offer recompense? Can the missing be issued with death certficates? Fiction, however, has always provided us with an essential way of exploring different realities and experienced truths.
This powerful novel by Chris Mlalazi is narrated by Rudo, a fourteen-year-old school girl who observes the terrifying events that take place in her village. It is a gripping story of how Rudo, her mother, her aunt and her little cousin survive the onslaught. Mlalazi's novel is written with insight, humour and provides a salutory reminder that even in the worst of times, we can find humanity. This extract from Running with Mother provides us with an insight into how it felt to be a villager under seige during these dark years in Matabeleland.
Mother and Auntie are always arguing, especially when Auntie is drunk. I think, sometimes, that they don’t like each other. When Auntie is drunk she often assumes a superior attitude and says mother and I are rat-eating people. Mother never argues but just tells her quietly that Shona people do not eat rats, only mice, and they are delicious.
I remember one day when I was at primary school, father had caught a mouse in a trap in our maize field and mother had roasted it on a fire. We’d eaten the small rodent, all three of us sharing it, and it had tasted just like roast chicken. I’d asked father if we couldn’t catch more mice and have them for supper at home, and father had laughed and said, ‘Do you want Auntie to call us rat-eaters?’
I sometimes dream of walking with my mother across a valley of tall dry grass together with an old man carrying a long spliced stick with rows of mice on it. One day I told mother my dream and she said it wasn’t a dream but that it had happened in Chisara when I was a child, and when she used to accompany her father hunting for mice. She said that the man in the dream was grandfather Mamvura, who has since died. I was born in Chisara. Mother says we joined father in Mbongolo village when I was three, and he had paid lobola for her.
Auntie was pressing her face in mother’s skirt, seeking comfort, and mother had her hands on Auntie’s shoulder, giving it. Then I cocked my ears thinking I could hear the faint sound of a child crying. I quickly shut the idea out of my mind, thinking it was a trick of my imagination.
‘The soldiers came to the clinic and burned it down too,’ Auntie said in a muffled voice. ‘I had just left, so I quickly hid in the bushes. They ordered the nurses to undress and they took them all away, naked, just like that.’
‘So much has happened today,’ mother said gently. ‘Try to put it out of your mind for now, Auntie.’
Auntie’s shoulders heaved as another terrible sob escaped from her. Then I heard the faint cry of the baby again. I saw mother’s hands freeze on Auntie’s back.
‘Did you hear that?’
‘Hear what?’ Auntie asked, and a hyena laughed, as if in answer.
‘You mean the hyena?’ Another hyena laugh followed the first one.
‘No,’ mother replied. ‘I thought I heard the sound of a child crying.’
‘I heard it too,’ I said. ‘I thought I was imagining it.’
Then we all stood silent. The wails from the village rang through the darkness, as if they had always been there, like the moon and the stars, as if the whole world was wailing. We stood listening for the cry of the child. The moonlight fell on Auntie’s face and the streaks of tears on her cheeks shone with a pale blue light.
Then we heard a sudden burst of gunfire. The sound was heart-stopping. Instinctively, I clung to mother. The gunfire seemed to be coming from all around us, but we didn’t see a flash of bullets across the night sky. Then the gunfire died away and in the silence we realised that the wailing had stopped.
And then we heard the cry of the baby again, faint, as if from inside a house with no windows and a closed door. I felt myself shiver. I hoped it wasn’t a ghost.
‘I can hear the baby too,’ Auntie said, standing up. There was a mortar and a pestle lying next to the ruins of the kitchen. Mother walked over and picked up the pestle, then she stepped over to the charred mound in the middle of the hut. The pestle was about her height, and as thick as her arm.
I wondered what she wanted to do. Then we heard cry of the baby again. This time, it was unmistakable, but it was hard for me to tell where it was coming from. I saw mother push the pestle into the mound, then she tried to lever it up, but it was too heavy for her. Auntie moved to help her and the two women levered the pestle up, and the whole mound fell apart; I retched and bile filled my mouth.
What had seemed one thing was many, a mass of human bodies, burnt together: charred limbs, bones shining white in the moonlight, and defaced skulls. The stench of burnt flesh was intense. My stomach heaved and I quickly knelt down and vomited.
When I looked up through tear-blinded eyes, I saw that mother and Auntie were still attacking the mound. Each time they heaved the pestle up, the remains of more bodies toppled over to the side.
Uncle Genesis had had a family of six. At last only one body remained on the floor. It was not as burnt as the others had been. Its upper body was still intact, and I clearly saw the face. It was Auntie MaDube, Uncle Genesis’s wife. She was lying on sheets of asbestos. I remembered these sheets. They had always stood against the wall inside Uncle Genesis’s bedroom. Sithabile had told me that one day they would provide the roof of the five-roomed modern house that her father was planning to build in his homestead one day.
The child’s cry seemed louder, and it seemed to be coming from underneath MaDube’s body. Then I saw mother and Auntie lift the asbestos sheet with MaDube’s body on it and lay it to one side. After that they lifted each of the sheets off the floor, one by one, and each time they did so, we could hear the baby’s cry more clearly.
There were ten sheets. The last two had shattered, so mother and Auntie just shoved the pieces to one side, and right in the middle of the floor was a metal handle. Mother and Auntie both pulled at the handle and through the grime I saw a trapdoor rise to reveal a hole on the floor. And from inside the hole rose a blast of fresh screaming, the sound of a frightened, angry, hungry baby.
I knew about this hole. Mother and Auntie must have known about it too, although we never talked about it. Uncle Genesis had it dug in his bedroom, so that he could use it as a safe for important things, and to hide money from thieves and dissidents, Sithabile had told me. Normally, a small table was placed over the trapdoor handle, but it must have burnt together with everything else in the house.
Mother reached down into the hole. Auntie and I watched spellbound as she lifted a baby out of the darkness.
It was screaming. Mother placed it gently against her shoulder and shushed at it, and then she stepped back towards Auntie. I rose unsteadily to my feet and wiped the tears from my eyes with my hand. We stared at the baby in wonderment. It was Gift, Uncle Genesis’s last-born child. He was five months old. And he was dressed in cream wool jumpers with a matching hat on his little head.
‘Mwari wangu,’ mother said, inspecting the baby. ‘He seems not to be burnt. His clothes are wet but not burnt. Surely, if he was hurt, he would not stop crying, but he has.’
Mother removed her breast from her blouse and Gift immediately started suckling hungrily.
‘Whoever put the child inside that hole made the right decision,’ mother said, ‘Now it’s our duty to see that this baby lives, Auntie, and also Rudo here.’
‘They’re the only ones of all our children now left,’ Auntie said.
‘They must live.’ I nearly mentioned Sithabile, as I thought she might still be alive, but the words failed to come out of my mouth.
With the baby still suckling, mother went down on her knees, and asked us also to do the same.
The moon still sat in the sky, as if worried about what was happening to us. The night was silent. There was not even a breath of a wind, or trill of crickets.
‘Mwari wedu,’ mother started praying. ‘We thank you Mwari wedu for keeping your little baby alive in the middle of a fire, and without your kindness this would never have happened. We thank you Mwari wedu for being our father when we are in need, and we ask that you show us the way to safety so that our children can live and grow up to be adults also. We also pray to you Mwari wedu to look after all the dead and raise your hand against all those who have sinned against you today. We ask for protection in this dangerous time, Mwari wedu, in the name of the son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’