Once upon a Christmas in Zimbabwe:

LAST DECEMBER, I was driving through the Beit Bridge border post when I saw a man holding a little pink bicycle.Kisimusi He showed so much love in the way he protected that bike. He squeezed into a car that already sagged at the weight of luggage and people.

I could imagine how uncomfortable he was sitting in the front passenger seat and still having to put the little bike on his lap. I also understood what the bicycle meant. I hoped too that the child that would receive the present would have an appreciation of what this father (that was my assumption) had done – the love and determination to give a smile to his own. He reminded me of Christmas in my own childhood. Allow me then, a nostalgic detour.

Once upon a time the Christmas festive mood was rung in by the small matter of the “bonasi” (13th cheque/bonus). Do you remember the song “Wapenga nayo bonus” in which Jonas blows his money in the pub, buying all and sundry “firewater” and playing the jukebox like there was no tomorrow. On the other hand, radio shows would abound with warnings of the forthcoming “January disease” and how school fees needed to be put aside. But still revellers would dance to Paul Matavire’s “January Disease” with verve – the message could not be allowed to spoil the fun.

The end of November and early December also meant the office Christmas party. This was an occasion to resolve long-simmering issues with your line-manager. The brandy and the malt pumped up your courage to state the truth (according to you). The next morning you would go in search of a doctor’s letter and try hard to pretend to have a severe case of amnesia.

Drinks at this time of the year could be quite unique – Bols Brandy mixed with coke and milk (was this our version of Amarula before Amarula)? For those on an economy budget – sorghum beer mixed with fresh cream. The outcome of these potent drinks was all too visible. Mike Tyson would have been proud of the brawls that erupted at the slightest provocation such as  accidentally stepping on someone’s foot. No wonder one pub at the Terreskane Hotel, in Harare’s Avenues, was nicknamed Pint and Fight (it was actually Pint and Bite).

For some lucky children, the bonus largesse translated into two important things: new clothes and an overdose of food. Going to town to shop was a mission bigger than organising Neil Armstrong’s trip to the moon. You woke up early and, for once, you gladly bathed and waited impatiently as your brothers and sisters took their precious time to get ready. Going shopping (a rare treat then) meant chips, ice cream and cream soda or cherry plum (you had to create the evidence of colour on your tongue so that no one doubted you).

Dear Reader, if you were unlucky, clothes and shoes would be bought in your absence. Can you imagine one Christmas my mother measured my foot with a string, got on a bus and bought me a pair of shoes just like that. I had no hand in the selection of those shoes. They were quite big (“ndokuti ukure nadzo” – “you’ll grow into them”) and I had to stuff some cotton wool in those shoes so that I could walk around in them. I revenged by kicking rocks over a couple of weeks until the shoes were worn out. She eventually had to buy me Whoppers shoes (the in-thing in 1979) which I wanted in the first place . But I digress – as usual. 

So, when your mother bought you new clothes she gave a very stern warning: don’t show those clothes to anyone before the big day. She would then place them in a far corner in her wardrobe. The minute she hopped over the fence to chat with her friend next door you raided the closet. You put on the clothes, called your friends to the window and did exactly what you had been told not to do: show off. Believe me, Naomi Campbell could not have catwalked better.

Then came Christmas day and the Motley Crew (your whole weird clan), would converge at your house. This would include your uncle with his “come-down-the-pawpaw-tree” platform shoes matched by his maroon bell-bottom trousers that hugged his waist as if he was a wasp. He would carefully turn his head to avoid disturbing his Richard-Jon-Smith-uses-Brylcreem-only afro. The aunt walked in her white the-higher-you-go-the-cooler-it-becomes shoes, showing off her coca-cola legs that sat in contrast to the Fanta-face (the magnificent outcome of Ambi skin-lightening cream). She would sit on the red resin sofa and avoid the reed mat on the floor in case her brown stockings would ladder.

When all had gathered the feasting began. You started off your breakfast with bread galore, scones and slices of cake. You may wonder at the bread matter here. Dear Reader, the bread would be in large quantities and there was no rationing on the number of slices you could have. You also overdid on the spreads – Stork margarine, Sun Jam and peanut butter – all at once.  There were also sweets and biscuits as we waited patiently for lunch. You should also understand that for the greater part of the year, you could buy one sweet (invariably a Crystal sweet in a wrapper) – crush it with a stone and share with your five friends (yes, five or more). A sweet never tasted sweeter than that little bit you got.

Anyway, the rice, chicken and goat meat would follow early afternoon and we all looked forward to drinking Coca-Cola – every soda was called a Coca-Cola. Our capacity to eat and drink was amazing. In 1980 we visited the Umtali Bottling Company on a school trip. A boy called Liberty drank THIRTEEN 300ml bottles of Fanta Grape (this drink had just been launched). Well, on many Christmas days after we tried to outdo Liberty as we downed cases of colourful sodas.

Poet and professor of literature, Musaemura Zimunya, captures the essence of this season in Kisimiso (a Version of Christmas):

Kisimiso means feasting

Dozens of bread loaves, drums of tea, mountains of

Sadza,

Rock-size pieces of meat of the he-goat

In lakes of thousand eyed-soup

And, of course, large pots of fizzing frothy beer.

Times may have changed but let’s still do what we can for our loved ones. 

Here is wishing you a Merry Christmas.  

PS – This is my last coulumn for the year. I am now officially on a go-slow and behaving very much like a beached whale. Regrets will come in January. For now…

Chris – Zimbabwe in Pictures