Travel, memories of home

Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday
“Where are you from? Let me guess, you are from Ghana!” I shake my head. The elderly white man scratches his balding head a bit and looks at me from top to bottom. I am all covered up wearing a thick woollen long gray dress and a heavy black jacket. To lighten up this rather dark and boring look, I wear a bright yellow and red scarf around my neck and a dark purple head scarf.

“You are not tall enough to be a Sudanese, though you are dark enough to be one. I will guess where you are from again. Kenya?”

I shake my head and let him keep guessing. This is not the first time that I have travelled on a country train in Australia and I meet middle aged men who like conversation with African women. I have heard that they say we are exotic, though I have not yet found the exotic part myself.

“Ok. One more time. Nigeria?” I shake my head again.

“Africa, obviously. So, which country are you from?” my fellow passenger asks.

I am in Australia, travelling on a train from Melbourne to a place called Albury about three hours on the train. It’s freezing cold out here. My cousin Reuben, the one who often comes home to Zimbabwe, has a cousin from his mother’s side who lives in the country. We are having a family reunion over there. I chose to travel on the train in order to see the countryside.

“I come from Zimbabwe,” I tell my fellow passenger who immediately smiles and begins to tell me everything he knows about Zimbabwe.

“Ah, the country where there is so much trouble,” the man says. “It used to be Rhodesia back in the days.”

I nod.

“What trouble is in Zimbabwe?” I ask him.

When I used to live here, five years ago, I did not ask this question. In those days any talk about Zimbabwe brought embarrassment and shame to me. I often quickly apologised for being Zimbabwean and said that the country was not as bad as they say. I would also admit that there were problems to do with history, colonisation, land, race, drought and other issues. Then I always prepared myself to lose the argument and wish the conversation could shift to something else.

But when strangers met on a train like this, they always wanted to continue hammering the Zimbabwe subject as if it was the only African country with problems.

This time, on this train, I am ready to discuss Zimbabwe. Because I know more now about my country than I did five years ago.

Once or twice a year, I still get on the plane to visit the brothers, sisters and all the relatives and friends who live in Australia. After some years, some of them call Australia home. And yet, on some days, they are often reminded that they are strangers in this country that used to belong to the Aboriginal people before it was colonised by the British.

The Aboriginal people have never been able to get it back. And they never will, because there are a few of them left.

There are many similarities between Australia and Zimbabwe. The weather is nice, especially as you travel up north. And the Australians are good, humorous and friendly people. But, most of those I meet know very little about Zimbabwe except the negative news they read in the papers and watch on television. Occasionally, they read about rhinos that are being killed for their horns. Recently, they saw a lot of news about a lion called Cecil that was killed by an American dentist.

I have many relatives who came here as students or as nurses.

For the majority of them, this is home. Reuben is one of the few who still want to come home twice or even three times a year.

His wife Mai Tinashe thinks Reuben is confused about his identity.

For the past two years Reuben has been building a house in Harare without his wife’s blessing.

“Why would I live in a country where I am asked, ‘Where are you from? so often?’” Reuben asked Mai Tinashe once, when I was here last Christmas.

“What does it matter? Everyone comes from somewhere,” she answered.

“Just say you are from Africa and you do not have to say Zimbabwe.”

“I am proud of my country. I will always be Zimbabwean and I shall stand on top of mountains to shout that I am proudly Zimbabwean,” Reuben had said.

“Saka, go back to Zimbabwe if that country means so much to you!”

We listened to Mai Tinashe arguing and sometimes getting quite emotional.

“If your country is so beautiful and peaceful, why is it listed as one of the most unliveable places in the world?” she asked.

I recall that Reuben and I moved uncomfortably in our seats. It was true that Zimbabwe, or Harare in particular, was rated as a very difficult city to live in, when compared to other cities around the world. Those who did the research said public transport and the lack of health cover placed Zimbabwe at the bottom.

“You have few buses in the city. You need a lot of money to pay a private doctor. You can wait for a very long time at the public hospital if you are sick,” Mai Tinashe said.

“Sure, but which country does not have those problems?

“Also, what about the level of safety and happiness?” asked Reuben.

“Would you live happily and comfortably in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea? Would you feel very safe in Johannesburg?”

“I have a job, a house and a good car. I eat well and my children are healthy. This is my home. End of story,” Mai Tinashe said and closed the argument. Reuben looked at me for comment. I was not going to be part of this argument over where is home or what Zimbabwe means to me.

For 25 years, I was a migrant mostly in Australia with a few years in the UK and in America.

But one day, I returned to Zimbabwe and back to the village. Home is clearer to me now.

But there are many others in the diaspora who have found homes elsewhere.

That too, can be home.

“Will you ever go back to Zimbabwe?” asked my fellow traveller, who had since assumed I was in Australia to run away from Zimbabwe.

“I live there. I am only visiting Australia. Zimbabwe is home,” I said.

“But, is it safe over there? What about the tribal wars?”

I then launched into my usual marketing Zimbabwe campaign. I said Zimbabwe was not Kenya, Sudan or the Congo. There had been a liberation war for independence. Then there were land issues. Many people left the country and they live and work in the diaspora. And recently there was a drought and our maize yields in the fields were not as great as we expected.

But, Zimbabwe remains a very beautiful country. The expatriates who live there will tell you that it is a peaceful place to live in and to bring up children.

The man kept listening as I told him that I had been living in Zimbabwe for more than three years now and spending a lot of time back in the village, in what we call kumusha, near the foothills of the magnificent Hwedza mountains along the Save River where hippo, big fish and crocodiles swim in peaceful serenity. There are heavy black and red soils along the valley where you can grow maize, sweet potatoes, okra, millet, groundnuts and yams.

In these valleys, most people live very far from the shops, but they eat what they grow. My fellow traveller kept smiling and did not seem to believe what I was telling him. But that did not matter at all.

Although I may wander off again as I did last week, back to the faraway places in Australia, I still return to Harare and to the village where the homestead fire continues to burn.

Soon, we will have ceremonies and play the drums to honour the ancestral spirits, as we do every dry season.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.