Maguta: Memories of plenty

Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday
“We are looking for food because our fields got burnt by the sun,” said the young mother sitting cross-legged in our village courtyard. She was accompanied by two others, one skinny tall man with a beard and another older woman. The three visitors had walked many miles from Buhera and beyond, places further down towards the Limpopo River in the south.

“Vari kushava,” my cousin Piri said, introducing our new visitors.

Kushava meant the people had come to beg or to trade for food. During the colonial days, it did not rain much in Buhera. Many years later, it still does not rain much in Buhera.

The land is dry and very hot with scattered thorn trees growing out of rocky and sandy soils. The visitors looked very hungry but they were not sad. The woman with the baby pointed at our miserable maize and laughed.

“Your crop is just as bad as ours back home. But we only stopped here to ask for food because we saw a car. We said, there must be food here because starving people do not park a car in front of their village courtyard.” Then we all laughed.

Every year, visitors from Buhera walk around the villages with “gowa”, or bicarbonate of soda, a powdered mineral loved by cattle. The soda is carefully collected from the siltation of the Save River.

It’s used as an ingredient to soften food like okra and pumpkin leaves. Too much of it can cause stomach aches. So you have to use very little. It is also used for treating animal wounds and for cleaning stubborn stains.

“What if there was no bicarbonate of soda to sell? What will you eat?” I asked.

“We would find other means of survival,” the young mother from Buhera said, nursing a little baby boy in her arms.

Our visitors from Buhera explained that they walk for days exchanging a cup of “gowa” with half a five litter tin of maize. When they can no longer carry the maize, they look for a relative, or anyone who shares their totem in the area. Then they leave the bags of maize there until the “gowa” is finished. Later on they contribute a few dollars each to hire a kombi to transport the maize back to their villages. The maize will last them for few more months. It is also supplemented by food aid from benevolent Western donors.

Here in our village, we planted maize in late November last year. It germinated beautifully. Then there was no rain. The sun came and mercilessly scorched the crops and they shrivelled and died. We replanted maize again after Christmas. In some of the fields we supplemented the maize with sorghum, millet or mapfunde, zviyo, mhunga and all the other old crops that are drought-resistant.

Our maize has failed to make it this season. The rainfall pattern across the country has not been kind. As you drive towards Hwedza, before and after you cross Save River, you will notice miserable yellow looking maize with little cobs in many villages.

The yield will be little because the crop was damaged by lack of rain.

“It’s better not to have planted anything at all,” said Piri.

“You buy the seed to plant, then you add fertiliser for growth. Then you must wait for God to bring rain. This year He chose not to. Your money is gone and you have wasted your energy.”

“Around here it used to rain a lot,” said the older woman from Buhera.

“What happened?”

“Something called climate change,” I said, casually, as if this big global problem was affecting only our villages.

“Do not listen to her,” Piri said, brushing me aside. “There is nothing called climate change. If you no longer practise the rain-making ceremony and you forget to respect the ancestors, it will not rain. The earth is very angry. We must follow the rituals and ask for atonement from the ancestors. If we respect the earth, rain will return and once again, we will enjoy times of plenty, like it used to be.”

I recalled, the times of plenty or maguta, as the elders used to call it. But the elders also talked of a year when there was hunger, gore renzara.

When we were growing up, I do not remember those times of hunger. Around this village, we used to eat well.

In those old days, this place was more fertile than it is now, even though it was called the Native Reserve or the Tribal Trust Land by the British settlers who came here to take good land during the time of Cecil John Rhodes and his British South Africa Company. They settled us here and we made the best out of the poor soil. There was a time when this village was full of life, people, drums, dancing, music and maguta, plenty of food. Growing up here in those pre-independence days, we waited for the rains in November. Village activities were determined by the seasons.

A certain kind of heat could tell you that the rains were near. When the rains came, we danced in the rain and sang: “Mvura ngainaye tidye mapudzi — Let it rain, so can eat pumpkins.”

At night we heard frogs joining our praise songs to the ancestors.

Within weeks of the rain falling, the once dry countryside was green. Trees had new leaves and the birds sang. The squirrels were out in the sun. Save River flowed, taking away all the dry debris and dust to the Indian Ocean.

Women in our compound and in other villages shared and exchanged groundnut and pumpkin seeds.

We ate what we grew in the fields and celebrated many good harvests. We were poor, but we did not go to bed hungry.

We had varieties of vegetables including, munyemba, bean, derere, okra, black jack, mhonja, muboora or pumpkin leaves.

I used to walk through the fields and the millet towered over my head.

On the ground there were various green and yellow, pumpkins and water melons, lying around. After the Easter time, the harvest time began. The granaries were full. The elders held ceremonies to thank our ancestors for good health and new births. At full moon, we followed the sound of the drum and danced until dawn.

We spread the peanuts, red sorghum — zviyo, mapfunde and mhunga — to dry in the sun at the flat granite rocks to dry. Everything obeyed the natural rhythm of time and got dry at its own pace.

When the harvest was over and our granaries were full, my mother and all the women in the compound spent seven days brewing beer to thank the ancestors for the good harvest, goho rakanaka. The beer was strong and intoxicating.

Throughout the seasons and the activities, we learnt about the world around us and how to live like people, sevanhu vane hunhu. The land was not measured in monetary terms. We were taught that the land got angry when it was abused or treated badly. The elders gave names like Pasiratsamwa, the earth is upset or angry. Pasipanodya, the earth devours or eats us. Pasipamire, the earth stands or has come to a halt.

There was no fertiliser bought from shops. We used cow, goat and chicken manure.

We also collected organic mulch, murakwani from the hills. We made compost from the household biodegradable pit. We did not have rubbish like plastics or cans to throw away. Conservation was not new; we just did not have the English word for it.

Each season had its own food. The wild jungle belonged to everybody and it was treated with respect. Fruit trees were so plentiful that each season, we knew where to collect tsubvu, the olive like fruits, matobwe, matunduru, hute, mazhanje and many others.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is an independent writer and cultural critic.