In colonial Rhodesia, there were separate schools, hospitals, restaurants, toilets, hotels, buses, leisure centres, playgrounds and suburbs for whites and blacks
Dr Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
This man in the village next to ours shook people’s hands using a stick. His hand did not touch another person’s hand. No. His hand could only hold one end of the stick. It was the other end of the stick that made human contact. The man’s name was VaBhunu, meaning The Boer or The Afrikaner.
“Mbiri yake murume uyu yaive yei?” asked my niece Edna, meaning why did this man behave this way? Where did he derive his fame from? Edna is 15 years old and in Form Three. I was helping her with her homework. She was writing an essay about how we grew up during the colonial times when there was so much racism in this country. I told her that Africans and Europeans did not mix when I was growing up. There were separate schools, hospitals, restaurants, toilets, hotels, buses, leisure centres, playgrounds and suburbs. The white man regarded himself as superior to the African and there were many privileges available to white people only and not to black people.
In the Harare Gardens, there were benches written Europeans only and toilets for maids and nannies while the madams had theirs with clean towels, toilet paper and polished floors. During Rhodesia, it was hard to be black, especially in the city. Down here in the village, there were two men who behaved like white men. VaBhunu and Mr Lancelot. At any village gathering, most men sat on logs, wooden stools, bricks, buckets, stones or anything that they could place their bottoms on. There were hardly any chairs in the village. But we all knew that when VaBhunu or Mr Lancelot arrived at a beer party, everyone stands up and looks around for a chair for them. Mr Lancelot and VaBhunu did not allow their bottoms to sit on anything that was not a chair. No. After close exposure to Europeans, the two men (who were close friends) said they did not want to lower themselves to the level of natives.
“Tete, ndati mbiri yevarume ava yaive yei?” asked Edna again. Why were these men different from everyone else? Mr Lancelot, not VaLancelot, was a Mudhibhisi, the cattle dip supervisor or manager who reported directly to Mr Welensky, or Werenziki, the inspector of cattle management in the rural areas. Mr Lancelot always wore heavy brown boots and a brown long jacket with big buttons. He was the only man who moved around with a fountain pen and a bottle of ink so he could sign his name in the individual cattle register book that people carried to the dip tank. Mr Lancelot claimed he was so close to Mr Welensky he was allowed to drink from the same cup of tea that the white man used, each time he went to the district council for meetings.
Mr Lancelot had a grinding mill opposite Muzorori & Sons Stores. One Boxing Day we all went to Muzorori & Sons Stores to listen and dance to LP or long play records. We were dressed up in our Christmas best clothes. Christmas was not Christmas unless you wore new clothes, ate plenty of bread with jam, chicken, rice, meat and sweets. People visited each other and celebrated Christmas. My sister Charity, my brother Charles and I arrived at the shops after the music had already started. Mr Lancelot sat on a chair under the mango tree near his grinding mill. He was wearing white gloves, a silver suit, shiny black shoes and a red hat with a feather sticking out.
VaBhunu wore a brown striped suit, a black and brown striped shirt, brown pointed shoes, a red tie and a big brown cowboy hat. He held a bottle of Castle beer in one hand and his greeting stick in another. When he saw us arriving, Mr Lancelot shouted at Charles and asked whether our father was coming to the shops. We could not shout back because that was not proper. We walked over to them and shook hands with the stick. Mr Lancelot shook hands with us using his gloved hand.
“Your father is an educated man,” said Mr Lancelot. “But he is not using his education well.” Charles nodded, though he later said he did not know why he was nodding. Charity, who was always the first one to speak, asked why they felt that our father was wasting his education. Mr Lancelot said, “He drinks local beer with the natives.” Then he laughed heartily, mocking our father. VaBhunu smiled and asked about my mother. He shared the same totem with her, Nyati the Buffalo. He then dismissed us by waving his stick sideways.
Later on, we saw Mr Muzorori join the two men and they sat on chairs while everyone else sat on a bench, bricks or stools. But Mr Muzorori was a humble man. He shook hands with everyone, even though he had more money than Mr Lancelot or VaBhunu. He drove a car called an Anglia while Mr Lancelot and VaBhunu had bicycles. When we got home, Charles sat on my father’s chair holding a long stick. Pretending to speak like a VaBhunu, he said, “Come here, kaffirs. Let me shake your hand and congratulate you on a good job done this year.” Charity and I said yes, we were good loyal kaffirs. We knelt in front of Charles with our heads bowed and shook the stick.
Then Charity suddenly got up quickly and grabbed the stick from Charles. She broke it into two and shouted: “You are not our boss. Murungu, go back home to England!” she said. We all laughed. Baba laughed too and said, “Greeting people with a stick is not a sign of civilisation.” He then counselled us about the meaning of education. He said showing off and treating other people the way white people treat Africans was not proper. In fact, it was outright immoral. Hausi hunhu. Hakusi kufunda. Baba said this mimicking the white man’s behaviour and looking at others with disdain and treating people as inferior beings would one day come to an end. It did.
If you pass by both VaBhunu and Mr Lancelot’s homesteads now, all you see are old ruins of brick buildings with no roofs, overgrown with Lantana Camara bushes. VaBhunu never had any children. Years later, some people said VaBhunu was probably never the type of man to marry. He preferred to dress up well, to look smart and spend time with other men. Zvinonzi vaive neshavi redonha. It was only much later, when I was already at university that I learnt about the power and behaviour of men like VaBhunu. VaBhunu’s manner was possibly influenced by the experience he had when he served in the African Rifles Series managed by the British South Africa Company, a private company responsible for administering this country when it was called Southern Rhodesia.
He was possibly a private or a sergeant recruited from the Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Department. In those days, Africans were paid 25 shillings per month while European sergeants were paid 180 shillings month. Ten pounds was given as gratuity to the next of kin if the African privates or sergeants died while fighting for the British. VaBhunu was a few years older than my father. This means he would have joined the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR) around 1940. From 1956 to 1958, some African sergeants left Southern Rhodesia and went to fight in Malaya, now Malaysia. On the 11th of November 1965, when Ian Smith, the former Prime Minister of Rhodesia, made the Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain, the RAR remained part of the Rhodesian army. When the first Chimurenga or the revolutionary liberation war against the Rhodesian colonialist government started, the African RAR fought on the side of the white army right up to the time of independence. In April 1981, the name “RAR”, and its insignia or badge was replaced by the Staff Corps badges of the Zimbabwe National Army.
VaBhunu must have been a retired RAR when he came back to the village just before the liberation war reached our area. This means he was already on a pension after supporting colonial rule in many parts of Africa or even in Burma or Malaya. I told my niece Edna that the days of greeting one another with a stick or with a glove are not yet over. Today, we still have other ways of mimicking the white man. We sometimes look down upon our culture and try very hard to eat, dress, talk and behave like Europeans. One day, we shall throw away the metaphoric stick and the glove and see each other as we are, sevanhu. We shall find a balance between our traumatic colonial history and the present. One day.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic