Nathaniel Manheru The Other Side
One riotous evening in the eighties, the late Dambudzo Marechera started his vivid address to a writersâ indaba by what seemed a senseless, irreverent postulate: âWe are a sexually active nation!â
Soon after, he broke into fitful giggles that befitted a reckless god laughing at sinful humanity. In the audience was a Cabinet minister who shall remain nameless. Not long later, Marechera took his giggling session to the minister, whose security aides acted promptly to end his indecorous contumely.
Spurts of drama followed as the two security aides struggled to encompass the vigorously writhing writer, whose little body frame sought to overspill, well beyond their pincer grip.
Before long Marechera was subdued, spirited out of the gallery building obviously hurling obscenities of protest, with his progressively dying shrieks pointing in the direction of TK (Terreskeni) which was not so far off. TK was his favourite hole for a beery renewal, his Mount Olympus for poetic inspiration.
Often he would be found fast asleep on one of TK benches, spittle blighting freshly composed lines of amazing poetry.
Where none is shorter,Â taller
Barely three years later, Zimbabweans started to succumb to the dreaded disease, Aids, Marechera himself foremost in that grim race whose start-line had been quietly drawn amidst silent nightly misdeeds we tightly denied in broad daylight, misdeeds consecrated in unseemly dark corners of Harareâs wakeful avenues.
A start-line drawn amidst a chorus of righteous denials by our see, do, hear-no-evil, speckless Nation.
Being better endowed, the honourable minister would eventually follow that same grim race, follow only much, much later, but sporting a drug-battered, mottled and wizened frame, all towards the finishing line.
We mourned him, louder than the creative urchin that escaped to TK that fateful evening, most probably to more wassails, more multiracial mischief. But for both protagonists, death had been the leveller, only uneven in its time table, but never the endgame.
And as I write about this great encounter that fateful evening of the eighties, I recognise two traits in our national personality: one which predispose us to giggling through a tragedy which is eating us, a trait of clear, reckless flippancy; another which predispose us to stoutly deny our unseemly side whose fingerprints are marked right there on our foreheads, making us despicable humbugs.
In the end, whether flippant or hypocritical, we slouch and succumb heroically to an engulfing silence of the cemetery yard, the yard where all are equal, none taller, none shorter.
Nights in Addis
A week or two ago I was in Addis Ababa for the African Union Summit. I lived in some hotel by the name Desalegne.
I am told the name translates to âI am happyâ. That I was, largely, mostly, until it came to breakfast, lunch or dinner time.
The Ethiopian menu is small, too narrow for my broad and restless, Westernised taste buds. In Ethiopia, teff is a national obsession; in Addis âinjeraâ with meat, is the national dish.
Yes, you can order a bit of Western food, but you never have the taste, which is what brought me lots of misery. But Ethiopians eat meat, lots of it, including raw meat. Nothing surprising if only you care to remember this is one country carrying Africaâs largest herd: a staggering 50 million cattle, and almost half the number by way of small ruminants.
And in tribute to those riches, the small hours of the morning are done violence by laughing hyenas, coming down Addisâ encircling hills to clean the city.
Their bellow took me back to Buhera, where the same creatures menace, man, animal and sleep.
Eating injera, drinking coffee
Injera is that sour dough-risen flat-bread which is served with meat, usually stripes of very tough, boiled beef, to the accompaniment of some dark, decidedly grey, dank sauce in which you dip injera.
Injera comes in folds, cold and sweaty, and decidedly sour, much like our fermented malt, only solid and thinly honeycombed, kunge guru rembudzi, the insides of a goat.
It is a hard take for a start, but a pulling crave once you acclimatise! I like injera, and will swop nationality for it. The morning table will typically have croissants and other confectionaries, a tray-full of sliced papaya, and very fresh, succulent, deep-red triangular melon cuts. You turn to morning juices, and your disappointment begins. Most probably you will meet melon juice, and papaya juice.
Only. Morning in, morning out. You feel entrapped. No escape holes, unless you want to go fizzy, of course against the doctorâs advice. Donât attempt their veggies; they are horrible.
Much worse their carrots, which look un-fresh, as if imported. But make no mistake, Ethiopia grows its own food, eats its own. For beverages, politely ask for their tea, typically wrapped in yellow, bearing a name written in Amharic characters you cannot read. Or better still ask for their signature coffee.
Remember coffee was invented in this land of Menelik, about 10 AD. It grew wild, as part of nature, until Ethiopian ingenuity nurtured it. Today Ethiopia has tens of varieties.
And Ethiopia has this way of doing coffee where you get a cupful of frothing milk, accompanied by a very dense concentrate of coffee syrup in a second, smaller cup. You mix to your taste and liking.
Before long you have accounted for over four such coffee mugs, without realising it. You will not sleep, for the stuff stimulates your mind to frenzied hyperactivity. Good for a working night.
The nation that bridled its tongue
Three things stand out in Addis, itself a microcosm of that sprawling nation which escaped baneful colonialism, except for those few days that Mussolini occupied it during the Second World War, before he was ejected.
Rich in history, heroic in cast and past, Ethiopia has learnt to tame its tongue in ways we havenât been able to, we Zimbabweans. Ethiopia leads its tongue, here we are led by our tongue.
Ethiopian table serves what Ethiopian farms produce. Ethiopia serves papaya and melon juices because that land produces swelling paw-paws, fat, striped-green melons. If you want juices from elsewhere, well, go there!
Ethiopia will serve injera because Ethiopiaâs land produces teff, that small grass-like grain which does well in Ethiopian soils, in Ethiopian climate.
And a key feature of Ethiopian life are cultural eateries where the cuisine is wholly and exclusively Ethiopian. As are also utensils, most of them wooden and traditional. The ambience is Ethiopian through and through.
You donât go to Ethiopia to eat Western dishes, much as they try to cook these, mostly with horrible, heroic outcomes. You get a sense that this horrible outcome is contrived, a national strategy of putt-putting you back into their own kitchen. In Addis, you meet Ethiopia in the dining halls.
Today their food industry is one gigantic statement on Ethiopian personality, apart from implying a giant stride in import substitution.
Belching exotic âairsâ
For a country which hit headlines on merciless ravages of a huge famine in the 1980s, this nationalisation of the breakfast table is a huge stride.
Quite often, famines and the phony compassion that follows them, are an excuse for a great, irrevocable shift in national staple, in national taste, towards the coca staple and taste that comes with Band-Aid. Not so in Ethiopia, which has managed the miracle of kicking off the addictive drug of global compassion.
And if you consider that the stomach is the lowest on Maslowâs hierarchy, then the implication of domesticating the national belly, of subordinating it to the national economy, become apparent.
Today Ethiopia exports injera, and sesame (runinga), even borrowing against receipts of that small grain called sesame.
Today Ethiopia has incorporated its peasant produce â by way of coffee, by way of melons, by way of paw-paws â into its hotel industry. Today Ethiopiaâs huge herd shapes Ethiopiaâs taste buds. Her meat carry the smells of Ethiopian dung, never the saline smells that come from Zimbabweâs strange kitchens where prawns fry so badly in our landlocked country.
Look at our import bill, much of it driven by strange food items we get from all over the world, often to our detriment health-wise. Today the national stomach growls and belches âairsâ we cannot describe, âairsâ that blast past our orifices leaving glistening blisters that turn to cancers we canât heal, to strange growths we canât even expose to our trusted doctors.
How does the stomach of a landlocked people burp smells of the oceans? How does a savannah orifice fart the smells of deserts? What has become of us, nhai weduwee? Are we able to recreate our national personality by the texture of our ablutions?
Are we able to tell who we are by what is on our tables?
Who are we, an unavoidable question to all of us as we heave out the last sod, get up the chamber seat to wipe off the remainder, do all those things before darting off a gob of self-disgust as we leave the lavatory. I hope I have made it disgusting enough to shock us into reflecting a little on our dung-behaviour.
Our mangoes rot beneath the dome of our ubiquitous mango trees, decaying to a host of mosquitoes and mites which gnaw our children at night.
We celebrate to imported mango drinks and syrups! Our guavas litter orchards, attract bull, green flies that soon sire maggots that in turn soon hurry us to understocked clinics nearby, stomachs rumbling.
Later in our hospitalisation, our beloved bring in caskets of guava drink: made in South Africa. Chipinge does not know what to do with pineapples. They rot, foul her crispy airs.
But our hotels cart consignments and consignments of cartoned pineapple syrups. A government that bays indigenisation, ironically buys exotic. Of course those taste buds cost, that cormorant belly costs.
The figures are clear and damning: upwards of US$6,6billion spent on imports, against just over US$6bn exports, exports which are always declining!
Imports stoked by exotic tastes we acquire and indulge, against better sense, better economics.
And the story is very clear: Zimbabweâs high spending is public, but not in the sectoral sense of Government spending.
Rather, in the broad sense of its broad population which batters and sabotages its own economy by those routine shopping trips to those supermarkets warehousing foreign mangoes, oranges, durexes!
The whole nation shops abroad, in the country, in what amount to a ritualistic self-immolation by way of an economy creaking under the weight of an impossible import bill.
Politician and citizen alike, we attack the national reserves in this collectively unconscious way.
The story of cassava
Today Ethiopia eats Ethiopian. Zimbabwe eats South Africa, England, Brazil, India, China, you name it.
Truly cosmopolitan in its self-ruining recipe. Real global citizens, table freedom fighters!
And the Ethiopian example gets even more fascinating when you see what they have done with the throwaways of their meat cravings. Ethiopia has now become a leader in the leather industry. Not hides industry, but leather and leather goods.
Her huge herd has become a huge, employment-creating tannery industry. They have borrowed technology from the Indians, well ahead of us who started turning our eyes to the East, in what history will record as a jaundiced sight.
What of Nigeria? Fascinating stuff out of that troubled giant.
The largest producer of cassava, Nigeria is a hive of activity when it comes to exploring industrial uses of cassava. Their output has risen from about 35 million tonnes in 2012 to nearly 45 million tonnes now, with a projection of 51 million by 2017.
But my interest is not in raw cassava. It is in how the Nigerians have transformed it into sugar, beer, drugs, stock feed and above all, flour. And the story on flour is fascinating. Having invested in simple grinding technology, Nigerian villages started sending in ground cassava. Bearing in mind that 24 out of the countryâs 36 states grow cassava, the output was massive. Government then required that the cassava flour be blended with imported wheat for bread and other confectionaries. By a small percentage for a start, increasing the percentage bit by bit while the national tongue got tamed and inured to the new cassava bread. Today Nigeriaâs wheat import budget has fallen drastically, while the cassava which used to rot in the village, is much sought after.
Feeding an elephant, leaving mother hungry
We do rapoko here. We do mhunga here, sorghum, you name it. And these small grains age and age until they get moulded to turn dark like us. There is no market for the small producer, no link with our quest for industries and jobs. My economics teacher taught me that the consumption curve never reaches zero, however broke one is. You borrow to survive, for you must set always.
The only time that curve reaches zero is in respect of those citizens in the cemetery. And it shows. Amidst the eye-soring industrial squalor in our country, the food industry continues to soar. We continue to eat, nay eat more as we grumble about the parlous state of our economy. We even import to appease that insatiable national belly! In any situation, the food industry never dies. Why has it not occurred to us that our sense of industrialisation must follow our restless belly, not those gnarled and fangled Rhodesian industrial contraptions of cadavers? How do you struggle to revive Metalbox or even Zisco when you have not invested in a modest plant to crush mangoes and tomatoes of Murehwa into syrup; before you have bought a simple plant to crush pineapples of Rusitu into juice? How do you think of borrowing abroad when you blow up US$6bn on imported potato crisps? Why think of feeding an elephant when your own mother goes hungry?
Love yesterday, lick today
We have to resettable sh national discipline. I think the starting point is inside our mouth, on that mascular tissue that tells us what is bitter, what is sweet and what is insipid, often goading us to wastefulness. Surely if you canât earn, you must save? Here is my simple proposal: why not stop the Innscors from importing dough from South Africa like they are doing now, force them not just to invest in wheat production here, but also to begin to blend that wheat with our very colourful, tasty and strongly-scented rapoko and mhunga, so we begin to have a new type of bread served on our table? One coming from what we grow? That is our cassava, surely?
In the meantime we go all out to research into possibilities around our small grains and other agricultural products. Is that not the way to grow a living industrial policy rather than pontificating about reviving Rhodesian industrial dinosaurs? I thought one World Bank official got it right: Zimbabwe must seek to industrialise on the basis of relevance, of the possible, not on the basis of nostalgia of the bygone. And a good starting point is to stop being led by our spoilt taste buds, led by our exotic tastes for imports, while we obey our bellies through a vigorous food industry beneficiating what we grow. Our mouth-work must issue from own handiwork.
That tongue, that tongue must be doused, tamed and leashed so it does not drag us to national penury. If it was the loins in the eighties, it is the tongue in the twenties. Hark I hear Marechera giggling, and telling us hey, Zimbos, we died by what we loved; you die by what you lick.