War, the search for meaning in the debris

Op1

The return of the guerillas from the bush was an amazing spectacle to a lot of the people

Ignatius Mabasa Shelling the Nuts
When Zimbabwe’s liberation war ended, there were some who were no longer sure whether they wanted it to stop or not. War had become a part of their lives. Although they had been fighting to win, they had never imagined it would eventually end. It was like enduring days and nights of incessant rain, and then it just decides to suddenly stop raining, and the skies clear and the sun begins to shine.

Personally, I wanted it to stop because my father and my nephew Clever had died in that war.

Also, it had become difficult to visit my grandparents and relatives because they were now staying in one of the colonial government created areas called “Keeps” in Nyajenje, Mt Darwin. The last time I had visited them, we had gone through several roadblocks where everyone on the chicken bus was ordered off with their luggage. They were asked to produce their ID cards, recite their ID numbers and had their luggage brutally searched. A lot of people never made it to their destinations after being detained for interrogation and further investigations.

After we got the news that the war was over and that the guerillas were back from the bush and had been demobilised, my uncle went to Bulawayo to fetch one of my other uncles who had been to war. Uncle Patrick was finally coming home after spending years fighting the colonialists in the bush. We, the young ones were so excited because one of the guerillas was actually coming to live with us in our own house.

Our Uncle Patrick had gone to fight in the liberation war when we were still very young. We had only seen him on some old photographs. He was a tall and dark fellow. On the photographs, his appearance was uninspiring. He looked like just another brick in the wall.

When Uncle Patrick got home, it was mid-morning on a Monday. The women ululated and the men hugged him and looked him up and down as if to make sure he was not strapping some grenades somewhere on his body. We the young ones were forgotten in the reunion which drew spectators from neighbouring houses and streets. Uncle Patrick was back, but he was no longer the lanky and uninspiring chap on the photographs. Instead, he was this very tall and muscular mountain of a man. He was wearing some faded jeans. His eyes, beard and hair were still at war.

The eyes were red like traffic lights. His beard and hair were like overgrown grass. Uncle Patrick looked shy and overwhelmed. He smiled a little and kept very quiet for most of the time.

After the greetings and formalities, my uncle of the house took Uncle Patrick to the barber shop. When he went out of the house, Uncle Patrick was a spectacle. I wish you were there to see the people running up to him to shake his hand and welcome him back, “Mauya, mauya comrade. Welcome back!” Some even sang songs and danced. It was a very special time, a time that I regret we were not able to capture and document properly as a nation.

Although I was still young, I was there to see a remarkable chapter in the history of Zimbabwe being written. Too many things were happening in those days, and they were happening too quickly. The war had ended, and the comrades were finally back home. It was a time to celebrate not just their return, but also their victory. It was a difficult time for most families too, because some guerillas did not come back home.

Some families waited and waited hoping that one day, they would hear that their loved one who had gone to war had surfaced in their rural home or some other relative’s house. Unfortunately, a lot of the freedom fighters never came back home, and nobody knows up to today what happened to them. Metaphorically, the war was like a dark and mysterious cesspool. While some like my Uncle Patrick came back, others came back disabled — without an arm, an eye and others with some other deformities. Others came back with difficult nervous conditions and insomnia. They were in dire need of psychosocial support.

The return of the guerillas from the bush was an amazing spectacle to a lot of the people who were in the cities. Unlike those folk in the rural areas who fed and worked closely with the guerillas, the city folk relied on tall stories and the colonial propaganda that said the guerillas had long tails and horns, that they ate people and other ridiculous claims.

So when Uncle Patrick came back home, a lot of people wanted to see and touch him as one of the heroes of the struggle who had dared death to a duel and emerged victorious. He represented those people who inhabited an outlandish world where songs that said, “Taigara mumakomo, tichishingirira Zimbabwe” were reality. It was those people who had spent years in the bush, eating and drinking disgusting stuff to survive who had come home.

Although I had initially been taken aback by Uncle Patrick’s dishevelled appearance, I was mightily disappointed when he came back home from the barber’s shop clean shaven and with a neat haircut. Removing his hair and beard took away something from his guerilla image that excited me and the other young boys in the neighbourhood.

Naturally, I had become a hero by association and extension among my peers. They used to mob me and ask all sorts of questions about the guerrillas, their guns and whether they could actually disappear. Uncle Patrick was a man of very few words and when I asked him questions about his war experiences, he used to say it was a long story and that he would tell it to me one day.

Uncle Patrick had stayed for too long in the bush and one thing that was evidently difficult for him was being indoors, in a space with four walls. He naturally had a tendency to sit close to the door, and he later told me that a good soldier must be as close as possible to escape routes in the event of a combat. Being a “normal citizen” took a very long time to happen to Uncle Patrick. A mindset shift — to beat AK47 guns into ploughshares, for the guerrilla to trade bullets for the chalk and write on the board to teach the young people. I think it was the confinement of the city that made Uncle Patrick eventually move to our rural home before he went on to train as an agricultural extension worker.

Later, Uncle Patrick told me that it was not easy when you had been deep in the trenches fighting a bloody war to suddenly find yourself relaxed and learning to listen to the sound of cars and the bell of the ice-cream vendor. It was difficult to suddenly stop being vigilant, put your guns and grenades down and walk up straight like the Johnny Walker guy! If you have been deeply involved in war, blood, wounds, pain, bullets, death, tears, betrayal and sickness — the sudden end of war could drive you mad. Just being idle and waiting for a new Zimbabwe to happen.

According to Uncle Patrick, war may have come to an end out there, but the war within the one who was at the front, eating gunfire for breakfast remained a problem. It was not easy for Uncle Patrick after spending many years of sleeping in the open, to suddenly enjoy sleeping in a comfortable bed with clean linen. It was hard for Uncle Patrick to learn to eat slowly and savour his food and beer, to get drunk, to wash and change clothes, brush his hair and teeth.

The war had claimed and kept a part of his life. He was in a free Zimbabwe, but his war experiences did not allow him to enjoy the freedom of warm blankets, cold beer and true laughter.

Thirty-five years ago when our country’s independence came, my dear Uncle Patrick also came back home from the war. Even though my Uncle Patrick is now late, I am glad that my family saw him and he saw the Zimbabwe he fought for. But my heart goes out to those whose relatives went to war, but never came back.