Mushrooms for my mother

When the Kombi minibus stops a third time, I don’t even take my eyes away from The Daily News I’m reading. It’s a week old but the journey is long and the minibus unreliable. Apart from the peeling paint, the passenger door that is held in place by a piece of string and the gaping holes where the headlights once were, the minibus sputters and leaves a trail of grey smoke for miles. Sheu, the driver, jokes that the old VW Kombi is as temperamental as his wife. He isn’t married. I don’t find that or the ‘GET IN, SIT DOWN, SHUT UP & HANG ON’ sticker on the dashboard funny. In the morning, when I first see the minibus, I consider not getting on. It is the look in my mother’s eyes when she says, ‘you have to go mwanangu, it’s not safe here’, that decides the matter. She had wanted me to leave as soon as I got off the bus the previous day. ‘You don’t know what they do to people from the city here,’ she looks annoyed. I want her to say ‘I’m glad you came, my child’, and to erase the last ten years into nothing and make it 1997 again. Instead, she just wrenches the small bag I’m carrying, almost ripping my shoulder out of its socket, turns away and walks back into the house. ‘You have to leave tomorrow, first thing,’ she says, not looking at me. I have no choice. The next bus back to Harare is only expected in another couple of days. Most bus companies terminated services to rural destinations as soon as the date for the presidential election was announced. The collective national curfew is half self-imposed and half implicit in the consequences faced by those who try to ignore the announcement and continue as normal, until they get beaten by the Green Bombers for being out on the streets or in the beer halls after 6pm. Those caught travelling across towns and cities or from the cities to the rural areas face worse punishments for travelling to indoctrinate rural folk with their western education-inspired hatred of the dear leader and the state. I know I am risking becoming an enemy of the state to see my mother before the election. I realise that the minibus has not broken down again when I hear banging and shouting. ‘Everybody out,’ a gravelly voice shouts. We all scramble up. We are at a roadblock—an unusual spot for a roadblock and an unusual way for the traffic police to conduct themselves. This I do not remark to the man standing next to me, waiting for the people in the front seats to get out first. The look on his face stops me. He slowly and deliberately shifts his gaze to the front of the minibus and almost imperceptibly thrusts his head forward. I follow his gaze. There is a big log, a few branches and a pile of stones in the middle of the road. Also, there is nothing to suggest why this might be a good place for a roadblock, there is no bend in the road or other natural features that would prevent easy avoidance, and there is no safe place to park vehicles out of the way of other traffic–it’s just a nondescript stretch of a road between two small towns. Not much traffic uses this route. It is a short-cut but it’s all gravel. The potholes and ditches in the road are also legendary. Most drivers avoid the route but Sheu takes his chances as his vehicle is not roadworthy and he loathes having to bribe the traffic policemen each time he is stopped at the several ‘official’ roadblocks, usually only a few kilometres apart, on the main tarred road. I throw the copy of The Daily News under the seat, step out into the aisle and get off the vehicle. Everyone has huddled together just outside the door. We are right in the middle of the road but we must all have realised what the roadblock is about and think that the decrepit minibus will give us some protection. ‘I.D. necard remusangano.’ The owner of the voice emerges from the bushes, an AK casually slung across his back and a tattered green beret perched on top of a head of unruly dreadlocks. The national identity card (I.D.) was introduced by the Rhodesian government but the present government, the police, the army or anybody who does anything in the name of the government, including this unofficial militia, embraces its use to restrict and intimidate people. It is a legal requirement to carry some sort of identification so everyone starts fumbling in their bags and pockets. He whistles and motions with his hand. Two more tattered and faded green uniforms appear from the bushes on the other side of the road. One is small and wiry, the other built like an athlete. I’m reminded of a documentary about hyenas that I watched several weeks ago. The Green Bombers had existed to me only in the reports I compile for the organisation that provides safe houses for displaced victims of political violence. Everyone knows they are not the police and that they are not official but none of us is under any misconception that whatever happens at this illegal roadblock, there will be a chance to remind these young men that they are in fact an unconstitutional paramilitary militia. The smaller of the men scans the group as he approaches. There is a glow in his eyes. As our eyes meet I know I’ve made a mistake. He walks over but I’ve closed my eyes. His fingers dig into my jaw line. I keep my eyes shut. When I feel a hand on my breast I open my eyes and begin to protest; I want to tell him that I don’t keep stuff in my bra, that any money I have and my phone are in my bag but the elderly man standing next to me puts a shaky finger to his mouth and shakes his head. The man hugs me close and unclasps my bra. The fondling gets more frenzied; all the other passengers avert their eyes. One hand moves slowly downwards and I try to shuffle backwards. I can see the veins on his neck bulge as he yanks me back by the belt on my trousers. I close my eyes again expecting pain. One, two, three...I start to count. When I slowly open my eyes again, one at a time, the old man is alternately fumbling in his pockets and rummaging in a small duffel bag. The small man is now standing over him, waiting. ‘I’m sorry, my son. I...which...what...which ones are you?’ he straightens up holding two cards which he proffers to the small man. One has the distinct red, yellow and green and a picture of the Zimbabwe bird, the other has a red open hand symbol of the opposition party. ‘Come and look at this, comrade Bazooka,’ he motions to his friend. ‘Please my son,’ the old man says, his eyes pleading and his hands held in front of him as if in prayer. ‘I’m old and these things confuse me.’ Everyone tries to huddle even closer. A plump woman travelling with her young son puts her hand over his mouth. The little boy doesn’t look like he is going to make a sound anyway. ‘Slogan mudhara,’ screams the one with the AK. I will call him AK, maybe his name is AK anyway, it wouldn’t surprise me if it is. AK looks fifteen, maybe sixteen. I can’t tell. Bazooka might be fourteen. Same age as my youngest son. This worries me more than the fact that he has a baton which he is using to beat a rhythm on the side of his leg and that his nom de guerre is Bazooka. Bazooka takes a few steps towards the old man. We all flinch. AK puts his hand up and the Bazooka retreats. AK is in charge. I hope that is because of his AK which would mean Bazooka does not have anything bigger. ‘Are you trying to be funny mudhara? I said slogan,’ AK snarls. ‘Ok my son,’ the old man answers. ‘Viva the President,’ his voice is a little more than a whisper. ‘Is something wrong with your arms and hands as well?’ The old man doesn’t respond. The slogan always goes with the clenched fist salute. ‘Ah ha! I see now. You are one of those clever ones nhai?’ What does one answer to that? ‘Go sit down under that tree mudhara. We will deal with you later,’ he turns to address all of us, ‘This one is in need of re-education.’ The old man starts to apologise again but Bazooka pushes him towards the tree by the side of the road. ‘And mudhara start thinking about choices. You are all lucky today because we are in a merry mood so it’s your choice-short sleeved or long sleeved’. I hear someone gasp. ‘If the old man won’t use his hands and arms in praise of the father of the nation then they are no use to him’, Bazooka explains with a coarse laugh in the general direction the gasp came from. AK then turns his attention to the small group huddled together beside the Kombi. ‘Right! I want men under the tree, women on the minibus!’ There is a little shuffling, some pushing and shoving, yet no significant shift in positions. The group huddles closer. Bazooka and his comrade move towards the group. Men and women with the ‘right’ party membership cards are directed towards a different tree across the road. Men without the cards are led to join the old man where he sits, his head sunk in his hands between the knees. The rest of us, women without cards, are ushered back into the Kombi to retrieve our luggage. We get our luggage and again huddle just outside. AK, who had remained inside the minibus, comes out waving the newspaper I had been reading. My knees give out. Someone props me up. ‘Whose is this? Who has been reading this rubbish? Lies! All lies, funded by enemies of the state intent on spreading rumours about our leaders,’ his nose is flaring. No one moves or says anything. My eyes turn blurry and I can taste salt. He marches towards the men clustered around the old man and throws the paper on the ground in front of them. ‘When I turn around again I want it to have disappeared, disappeared so that there is no trace left of the lies.’ The men look at each other, locking eyes briefly, and then one of them starts tearing large pieces and handing them out. ‘This calls for a celebration, a good meal goes well with music anyway.’ Bazooka walks round the small group of men looking each one up. As he passes each one of them, they flinch and then sigh visibly. He stops behind a clean-shaven, well-dressed young man and pokes him in the back with his baton. The young man jumps up and there is a roar of laughter and clapping from the green uniforms. ‘This young gentleman here is going to start a song and everyone; I mean everyone, is going to sing,’ he says. ‘And oh! We want some dancing as well. Let’s have some bum shaking. Zunzai mazakwatira vabereki,’ he laughs out loud. The man with the newspaper starts ripping his own piece to smaller pieces and pushing them into his mouth. He looks round the group nodding encouragement. They all start doing the same. I can hear muffled sobs. One of the newspaper people starts coughing and retching. The three berets move a few paces away to confer. I and a few of the other passengers are old enough to realise that this is only the beginning. These young men are taking us back to the guerrilla camps of the Chimurenga War of the 60s and 70s. All of a sudden I am back there—camp in the bush, young men in tattered remnants of a green uniform, singing, dancing; and girls and young women screaming in the bushes. I can hear the singing start, faltering at first but more resolute by the second bar. One joins and then another: everyone joins in. Chenjera chenjera Vanamukoma vanorova I hear one of the Green Bombers whistle, a long piercing whistle. The people continue to sing. Even more tattered green uniforms appear. I see the looks on their faces. I smell the homebrew and dagga on the breath of the one who comes and disentangles my arm from that of the woman with the little boy. I think he says ‘show time’ or some such. Someone starts sobbing again as I am led a few metres away but still in full view of the men eating the newspaper. They roughly pull me back on the ground. One pulls my legs. The others hold my arms. There is more cheering and clapping. I hear roars of laughter. I hear the screams. This time I am going to do something about it. I decide and start to walk away. I have a sudden urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother. I will pick nhedzi, tsuketsuke and even the rare, sweet chikunguwo. I have the time to search for it despite the thickening fog and the approaching darkness. I hear whimpering after they leave to bring the next woman but I keep walking. The urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother grows stronger still.

Ethel Maqeda