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We were brothers: stories of the village

(This is an old BSR, from 2016, but for me it's timeless. It reminds me of the most important people in my life, the good people I grew with, like the man who was my great friend, Bla Ediie. I looked for it in the BSR site and couldn't find it. But thankfully, someone had recorded it. If you want to under stand me and my philosophy of life, this BSR captures it well.)

There were ten households in the village. It was a tight little community comprising the elderly, the young and mostly women – the mothers of the village. Most men, the fathers, worked in Harare, occasionally returning to the village on weekends. There was a night bus which left Harare late Friday afternoon, passing through the village in the evening. Villagers called it Chidhoma (the ghost) on account of its nocturnal routine. Chidhoma brought the fathers, uncles and big brothers from the city.

Their arrival was always a happy occasion as it guaranteed some good things from the city – kuChirungu, as villagers put it. Even those who could not make it made sure they sent a parcel with the bus driver or those who were coming. More often than not the men would have had quite a few intoxicating beverages along the way and by the time they arrived they would be in a merry mood, which livened the atmosphere of the village.

Every person in the village had their duties. For the girls it was mainly the domestic chores – cooking, fetching water and firewood, sweeping the compound, washing clothes and much more. The boys had their own share of responsibilities, particularly those that required muscle. The most important task for the young boys was to look after the village cattle, perhaps the most significant asset to every villager’s name. Looking after cattle in our village was a communal affair. All the village cattle were taken to the pastures together and each household had at least one boy in a team that formed the cattle herding party. However, as there were many young boys in the villages, the herding party was usually quite large.

There was mukoma Lawrence, who was the most senior. Lawrence was his birth name but villagers called him Rorenzi and that is the title that he carried throughout his life in the village. There was babamunini Henry, another of the older boys. Everyone called him Henure. There was babamunini Gibson, a name that did not give complications to the village tongue. Both Henry and Gibson were our uncles. There was mukoma Leslie, who was known as Lezzie by everyone. There was Reason and Tino, also young uncles. Edson and Tichaona lived in the city but they joined the party during school holidays when they returned to the village. There was Leo, the villagers called him Riyo. There was Edmore, a young uncle who stayed in the village. Farai was a nephew – our muzukuru. I was part of that group – the band of brothers. Others came and went during that period, but essentially that was the group that looked after the village livestock and this is our story.

We usually took our cattle to the Mission, as we called the area where they grazed. The story of the Mission is one that is part of the rich tapestry of village life and history. When the Wesleyan Methodist missionaries (maHwisiri) arrived in our land many years ago, they chose Chimedza Hill, just a few miles from our village. They made it their home and permanent station. They took the name of the traditional owners of the land, vaNjanja, the Sinyoro clan and called it Kwenda Mission. A few miles away was the seat of power, Chief Mutekedza, who famously resisted colonialism until he was betrayed by some of his peers.

When the Missionaries settled at Chimedza, they did not just acquire the name for their Mission. They also laid title to vast swathes of land surrounding it. Having established title to it, the whole area became Mission land. But this land had all the good pastures, where the locals used to take their livestock for grazing. Chikunzvi River flows through that land and it was an important source of water for the livestock. Suddenly, the locals found themselves trespassing on their former land. It was no longer theirs but the Mission’s.

However, the Missionaries exercised some benevolence. Instead of enforcing their ownership in the strict terms of the colonial laws, they allowed the locals to continue using most of the land for grazing their livestock. They only fenced off the immediate area where they built their buildings and left the rest open. They built a big church and recruited many converts. They also built a school and a clinic, which served the community and many people from other areas. That way the new arrivals and the locals co-existed. Nevertheless, the name stuck. It was Mission land and that is what the locals called it. Generations that came grew up referring to it as Mission land. When our turn came to herd cattle in the 1980s, we also said were going kuMission – to the Mission. We were still trespassers on Mission land, just like our fore-bearers.

The Mission authorities built a large dam near Chikunzvi River. They drew water from it for domestic use. Our elders did not permit us to go there with their cattle, fearing that we might drown if we tried to swim or they would lose their cattle as there was a muddy patch on the banks of the dam, where cattle often got stuck and died enticed by the perennially green grass around the dam. However, at that age, we were quite rebellious and adventurous. We used to take the cattle to the big dam anyway. Oft-times we got away with it.

Misfortune visited us one afternoon while we were playing at the dam when Sirika, a notoriously greedy and restless cow strayed and got stuck on the muddy patch. We tried our best to pull her out but it was a futile effort. We had to send one of the boys back to the village to announce the grim news to the elders. The elders knew that Sirika would not survive the predicament. Thus the party of elders that arrived was no longer a rescue mission. The only way to put Sirika out of her misery was to put her down, which they did. Thereafter, they took the meat home. That was the end for Sirika.

I can’t say Sirika’s demise was mourned by the herd-boys as Sirika was one of the most difficult cattle to look after. She always strayed into maize fields and you had to keep constant watch of her movements. Nevertheless, her demise brought much pain and suffering as we got the mandatory lashing from the elders, first for defying the rules by taking the cattle to the dam and for our negligence. The blame for Sirika’s demise was placed on our shoulders. It was a thorough beating but it was expected and perhaps deserved, after what had happened. It was painful but we had no cause to complain. Such negligence could not go unpunished. Still, there was one silver lining – the meat livened the village dishes for the next few weeks.

We had many cattle. At any given time we had more than one hundred cattle collectively. Our cattle were very special to us and we had a special relationship with them. Each cattle had a name. We took pleasure in giving new calves names. Bantom, Skeneri, Hwerifandi, Dhongeri, Charuweki, Mereki, Super, Bhoferi, and many more. I am not sure where these names came from – some had belonged to previous cattle and were passed on. Others marked important events. One very prolific cow was named Chimurenga – I think because it was bought in 1980, when Zimbabwe got independence.

Another was called Independence, for the same reason. We had Africa, which honoured the continent. We gave the name British to one ox, but my grandfather would have none of it. He gave it another name, Hofman – I never understood why he chose that name, but he had another called Cofman and I suspect he liked the poetic tone to it. But the result was that all its life the poor ox had two names, British to us and Hofman to sekuru, our grandfather.

Sometimes, the names were just random. Mukoma Rorenzi went to Harare on a school trip one year and when he returned, Queen, another prolific cow had given birth to a new calf. He called it Charter Road, after the name of a road that he had seen and memorised on his trip to Harare. Super was a lovely ox – quiet and obedient, with a beautiful complexion. We also had Marujata, a tiny cow that was restless and always busy trying to sneak away from the rest, breaking into gardens. Sometimes we grew attached to individual cattle. Eddson loved Cotwell so much that when it was eventually slaughtered on account of age, Eddson refused to eat the meat! It did not turn him into a fully-fledged vegetarian though. Not that he had much choice – we ate vegetables most of the time!

We knew the behaviour and habits of all our cattle. Those that were calm and obedient and those that were restless and rebellious. We had one called Bress, a short, dark ox which was notoriously stubborn and sneaky. If you were driving cattle through a bushy area you had to keep an eye on Bress because he had a habit of quietly hiding under a bush and when everyone had gone he would sneak back to the maize fields. Even when Bress had a bell tied around his neck to make sure he was easily detected, the stubborn chap still mastered the art of making sure the bell did not ring at those crucial moments! Queen had her favourite maize field and if you lost her you knew where to find her.

Dhongeri, the big and industrious ox also had a dark side – he was fond of breaking into gardens. Dhongeri was fond of cabbages. With over a hundred cattle at any given time in bushy terrain, it was easy to lose a few of them if you did not pay enough attention. And paying attention was not always an easy thing to do because there was so much to do out in the pastures. We spent time looking for wild fruits – tsambatsi, maroro, nhunguru, tsvanzva, matohwe and many more. This was a distraction which got us into trouble a lot of times.

Looking after cattle can be monotonous. When you are out with the cattle, you have to find something to break the monotony. You can’t be looking at the cattle grazing all the time. So we had many games that we played. We made balls out of paper and plastic and played football. We had swimming sessions in Chikunzvi River, even though only a few could actually swim. Swimming was strictly forbidden by the elders but we did it anyway. Sometimes we had bull fights – pitting our village bulls against bulls from other villages. While out in the pastures we met herdboys from other villages who also came with their cattle. There were many villages around us – Kadenge, Hwara, Chinyemba, Chogwiza, Mukarati, Dodo, Munyoro, Muromba, Kwenda, Pasipamire, Hanyani and many more. The pastures were one big meeting place. There we made friends and exchanged stories.

Bulls from each village would fight and it was all very exciting, especially if your bull won. Each bull carried the pride of the village. However, sometimes this ended in fights between the herdboys from the different villages. Boxing matches were frequent. Starting a fight was not hard. Big boys made two mounds of soil and said this is the breast of John’s mother and another, the breast of Peter’s mother. They would challenge both boys to break the mound of the other’s mother. As none of the boys could stand the sight of his mother’s breast being broken by the other, it immediately resulted in a boxing match. Others cheered on, willing their fellow villager to win. It would not last long and soon the older boys would intervene to stop it. But it would happen again next time. It was part of the rituals of growing up.

However, it was during these activities that the sneaky cattle took advantage and strayed to the crop fields nearby. This often got us into serious trouble. Tracking the lost cattle was not an easy exercise. Others would remain with the rest of the cattle while the “experts” among us went out to look for the stray cattle. Sometimes it took hours to find them. The moment of finding them was received with wild celebrations. It was impossible to go home with some of the cattle missing because it meant only one thing: a severe beating. But even so, one of the worst sights was to see the elders coming to the pastures with some of the stray cattle. You knew immediately that you were in serious trouble because they would probably have found them in the crop fields having strayed while we were playing games.

Lunchtime was easily the best part of the day. It was probably the most attractive feature of this chore that drew many youngsters to the chore of herding cattle. Each household in the village had a mandatory duty to contribute a lunchtime meal to the herdboys. We did not have watches to tell the time. Instead, we used the elevation of the sun. We had our rudimentary techniques to judge time. A boy would stand on a clear space and measure his shadow and by that size of the shadow he could tell if it was time to go home. Later, we discovered that there was an aeroplane which passed above our area at regular times during the week. We began to use that to tell time.

When we got home we took cattle kumunhanga, the resting place. Our cattle had become accustomed to the routine. As soon as they got pamunhanga, the rested too and began to chew the cud. The herdboys would get together pamunhanga and start eating, after collecting food from each household. It did not matter how many we were, we all ate from the same meal and from the same plate. Sometimes we would divide it into portions but we made sure everyone ate every meal from each of the ten households. No one was permitted to discriminate and say they did not eat food from this or that household. You could not say this is from my mother’s house, therefore I will eat alone, no. We shared it equally. We all ate together. Some of the food was good, some not so good, but there was no room for selection. This was the best part of the day not just because we had so much variety but because there was a real sense of brotherhood within the group. It taught me great lessons in life, which have remained with me.

The afternoon usually dragged on slowly, but to break the monotony we played football and other games. The elders did not like to see us doing this because they thought it distracted us. But they got used to it although they would occasionally come to admonish us. But what else could we do when the cattle were resting? Later, as the sun went to its mother, as we called it when it was setting, we rounded up the cattle and took them to their pens. Mombe kudanga!, mombe kudanga!, we would chant and sing as we drove the cattle home. It was the time of the evening when the sound of many bells rang across the land.

Notoriously sneaky cattle, like Bress, were belled so that when they strayed it would be easy to identify their location. I can still hear the sound of the evening bells ringing in my head as I write this piece. It’s the sound of cattle going back to their pens at the end of a long day out in the pastures. They all knew, out of force of habit, which pens they belonged to. But we made sure cattle like Dhongeri, which had a habit of break out of the pen at night, were tied to the big poles around the pen so that they would not sneak away. If you forgot to do that, you would have a busy night chasing after Dhongeri and others.

I learnt from this period of my life that everyone has an important role to play, whatever their circumstances and limitations. We were a diverse group of young boys, with different skills. But we complemented each other in different ways. The older ones had experience. They showed us the way and we learned from their experience. Some were good at making whips (chamboko), which we made out of tree bark. Others were good at tracking lost cattle. Others were good at finding fruits, which they shared with others.

Mukoma Rorenzi was our leader. I learnt the importance of team-work. We were a team and we respected and carried each other. I learnt also from this early experience the importance of tolerance and patience. When you are dealing with creatures like cattle that do not talk, you have to understand them and work with them to achieve your objective. If you are impatient, your life will be miserable. But above all, I learnt to treat others with respect. We tried as best as we could to treat each other fairly, to protect the weak against the powerful and to stand for each other whatever the circumstances. Bullying was not tolerated. I learnt that you have to defend your own and that you must stand by principle. We were brothers.

Sometimes when we meet these days, we reminisce about the old days. But three years ago, we lost one of our team. I have written about him several times and regular readers are now familiar with the tale of Bla Eddie. We were working together, he as my able assistant when it happened. The seed of our relationship was planted during those early days in the team of brothers. We, the brotherhood, miss him very much.

But we remember the beautiful memories. We were brothers.


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