“Every time you read the news, you get to know that someone has been killed mercilessly,” said my cousin Reuben, moving away from the computer where he had been sitting and reading the news and catching up on e-mails for the last couple of hours. He went to the fridge, took out a beer, and sat opposite my cousin Piri on the sofa in front of the television. Piri was lying on her back on the sofa. She had a big bottle of beer next to her while she picked bits of meat stuck between her teeth with a tooth pick. I was taking a cup of tea, as you would on a dull Sunday afternoon in Harare.
Reuben then turned down the television volume and started recounting the tragic events he had been reading on the Internet. He said, during the past three weeks, many innocent people died. First, there was the 27 year-old Andreas Lubitz, a pilot on a Lufthansa Germanwings flight who deliberately crashed the plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. This guy suffered from depression. He was also having problems with his girlfriend. But, why not kill himself and not so many people?
Then in Kenya, at Garissa University, 148 students were killed by Islamic militants who made demands to get Kenyan military out of Somalia. When that did not happen, the gunmen killed innocent students. Reuben said the pain on the faces of the people who mourned for the dead was unbearable to see on the Internet. But that was not the first time that such a massacre had happened in Kenya. In September 2013, 67 people were killed at Westgate Shopping Mall and many others were wounded. When Reuben stopped talking and sipped his beer quietly, all I did was shake my head and say the world can be a sad and tragic place.
“At the end of the day, you can only say to yourself, people who kill others like that are no longer themselves. Take the German pilot for example. This guy suffered from mental illness. Aitopenga. And all those around him did not realise how ill he was. Sometimes when you think of the relatives left behind, you wonder why God allows this to happen,” said Reuben.
“Such evil has nothing to do with God,” said Piri. “It’s the Devil in all of us.”
“I do not have the Devil in me,” said Reuben. “Can you look at me and honestly think I can kill a person?”
“Yes you can. When possessed by a bad spirit, a human being can kill. Is that not so, Sis?” Piri asked.
That question has troubled me ever since I went to Rwanda three years after the genocide. In Rwanda, more than 800 000 mostly Tutsi people were killed by the Hutu during an ethnic conflict that had been going on for years. The Belgians and the French had something to do with the conflict when they took one side against the other. It all started in April 1994, when one day the Hutus used machete and started killing people, even those they knew well. In some cases, they were even related to those they killed.
For 100 days, between April and June 1994, the world watched as Rwandans killed each other.
I went to Rwanda four years after the genocide when I worked for an international NGO. My role was to write about the idea of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. I went to a prison and interviewed Hutu men who had killed. Among them was one big guy called Stanley who killed a pastor who used to give him a life to work every day. Then Stanley got arrested. But he did not confess to the murder. One day, a group of student nurses came to sing to the prisoners. Among the students was the daughter of the pastor who was murdered. Stanley saw the girl and asked the prison guards if he could speak to her.
She agreed. Then Stanley knelt in front of her and confessed that he had killed the girl’s father and he was seeking forgiveness. The girl cried and said it was not her role to forgive. She was leaving it all to God.
I was introduced to Stanley in prison, a month after his confession. I asked him why he killed a man who was his friend, a man whose family he knew so well. Stanley’s did not take time to think. He looked at me in the eye, touched my hand and said, “It was not me who killed the pastor. The Devil came and took possession of me.” The Rwanda massacre was a horrific genocide, never before seen in Africa except the time when the Germans were in Namibia and killed the Hereros, poisoned their water supply and drove some to starvation in the desert.
In Congo, King Leopold II’s Belgians massacred the Congolese and cut their arms off when they did not produce enough rubber on the plantations. Some of this history about violence in Africa and elsewhere has yet to be written.
“You see, a man or a woman can kill if they are possessed by a bad spirit,” said Piri.
“Some do so because of religious conviction,” said Reuben.
“Like the Al Shabaab militants who killed those students in Kenya. You look at the faces of those killed and their families in deep mourning and you think, why? During our ancestors’ time, the world was a better place to live,” Reuben threw his hands in the air.
“No. It was not a better place. They had many wars among themselves. It’s just not written. But why go that far back? During the liberation war, how much violence did we see as children growing up in the village? How many people were killed mercilessly?” Piri asked.
When we were growing up, before the liberation struggle, death was rare. Then the war came and we saw photographs of dead and injured people. The Rhodesian propaganda media showed us gory and horrific pictures in order to deter support for the liberation fighters. They called them terrorists or terrs, or magandanga. Within the confines of the village, they were the comrades.
One night, at the peak of the liberation war, we heard that our aunt, Tete Emma, her husband and two sons, were all killed and their bodies thrown in a cave overlooking the Save River, not too far from Hwedza and Nyangarire mountains. Some of our uncles and cousins ran away to Salisbury and ended up living in Epworth. Others found their way to Muzarabani or the flood plains where they still live. Over there, they tried to forget about the tragedies of the past.
Years later, the family pointed fingers as to how and why Tete Emma, her husband and the two sons died. Was it witchcraft from the husband’s family or maybe from our side of the family? Was it just bad luck? There were no answers and we moved on, occasionally mentioning Tete Emma during family ceremonies to honour the ancestors.
“Sometimes, when you read about so many tragic events in the world, you just want to stop reading about it,” Piri said. “Because all those stories you are telling me are meant to make you depressed. Then you feel so bad that many people are dying. But what can I do about it?”
“You remain ignorant, if you do not read the papers. But be prepared to read bad news too, most of the time. In Australia, every time you sit down to watch the news, all you hear is a murder here, a murder there or something tragic happens. Recently, A Sudanese woman drove into a lake, killing three children. At first, people thought she wanted to commit suicide, because some disturbed or depressed people do that. But it seems she simply lost control of the car. Who knows what caused her to do that? Life is just tragic, I tell you,” said Reuben, reaching for his Ipad again so he can read more news.
“Ah, imi, what kind of spirit has possessed you today? Why focus on such bad experiences in life? The world is not a bad place. But we must know that as people, we live very close to evil,” Piri said.
“Hunhu chete,” said Reuben, meaning we need the basic form of respect for one another as people, vanhu. When properly guided by the idea of preserving humanity and caring for the other, perhaps, there would be less tragic events in the world we live in.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is an independent writer and cultural critic.