Shadowing the 'big boys' in Zimbabwe

Immigrants and locals in Zimbabwe are eager to understand what is foreign.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters/File
Children carried home firewood near Harare, Zimbabwe.

Mai Agnes was apologetic. "You know those boys?" she asked me. "They want to do some work."

For a moment, I was taken aback.

Khumbulani and Kudakwashe, both age 11, were spending part of the school holiday with their aunt, Mai Agnes, who helps with my housework. The boys live a two-hour bus drive away in Zimbabwe's mountainous Nyanga district.

My son was ecstatic when they came to see him. Sam had just spent several days making a den with Fadzai and Audrey, girls only a little older than his 6 years. Finally, here were "big boys" for him to shadow.

He could hardly understand their Shona. Kudakwashe and Khumbulani (also known as Knowledge) spoke a rural dialect of Zimbabwe's main ethnic language. But, said Sam: "They have big smiles."

"In Nyanga, they are always busy," Mai Agnes told me. "They get up early. They go into the mountains to collect firewood. They collect water from the river."

Her eyes searched mine for understanding. She did not want to hurt my feelings.

She continued: "Sometimes they catch the bus to Sakubva so they can take the maize meal for grinding. Now they are telling me: 'We cannot just sit.' "

"Can they sweep the yard?" she asked.

I wanted those boys to have fun. Soon after they arrived, I realized that they loved to make things. So I wheeled a trolley of LEGO bricks out onto the verandah and marvelled dutifully at the airplanes, cars, and bunkers fashioned daily near my frangipani bush.

I dusted off a yellow soccer ball, pulled out ancient National Geographic magazines, and plied the boys (Sam included) with ginger cookies and the small bars of fudge that recently had appeared in Zimbabwe's not-so-long-ago-denuded supermarkets.

Had I failed to give them a good time?

"Can they, please?" Mai Agnes persisted. The decision was hers, I told her.

Later, in front of my laptop, I thought about those two boys standing on the cusp of manhood. I remembered how they had politely watched my family and me, eager to learn and understand.

We must have seemed so strange to them. Kudakwashe's eyes grew big when he saw my husband doing pull-ups on a makeshift bar hung in the pigeon wood tree: No doubt fathers, in his experience, got their exercise in other ways.

Khumbulani broke into involuntary giggles when he saw me hugging one of our cats. My nearly 10 years here have taught me that Zimbabweans appreciate their domestic animals: Guard dogs often double up as treasured pets. But cats usually aren't for cuddling in Shona culture. They're for catching mice.

And mice are – as I, in turn, have learned – sometimes for eating. When Sam announced: "The boys are cooking some mice for dinner," I knew not to appear disgusted.

During one of the worst of Zimbabwe's food crises three years back, more than one foreign news channel reported that locals were so hungry "they were trapping mice to eat." Government officials here hit back angrily. Mice are a traditional delicacy – especially in the rural areas, they pointed out.

Eating mice is not necessarily a sign of famine (though there should be no doubting the severity of Zimbabwe's repeated hunger spikes). I knew, for example, that Kudakwashe and Khumbulani had eaten chicken and tomatoes the night before their mouse supper. They'd had eggs for breakfast.

Ever since I, an English immigrant, moved here, I have had to listen and learn to deepen my understanding of Zimbabwe's rich and vibrant culture. Once again, I needed to understand – and appreciate – something that at first sight was foreign to me.

I realized that what Mai Agnes was gently telling me was this: Kudakwashe and Khumbulani were brought up in Zimbabwe's vast open spaces to work with their hands. That strenuous upbringing was something they valued rather than resented.

Before long, I heard the regular swish-swish of grass brooms raking the concrete drive. I opened the kitchen door. "Masvita!" I called out. Thank you.

Later, I caught a glimpse of my own child. He, too, was squatting in the leaves and sweeping away.

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