So going into the Leaving Cert French orals this week, I have had to prepare a ‘document’ to talk about. This is usually one or two pictures about an interesting topic for conversation and mine is a collage of pictures outlining the work I’ve been a part of in Africa. I was reminded, as I mentally prepared the different directions the conversation could go, of a short piece I wrote on the feeling of returning to a place that feels like a second home. Later I was reminded also that I had a blog to write and the coincidence sparked the idea to share the piece itself. So, I present for your perusal:
‘February 7, 2016’
We’re flying back, just four of us,
though for those at home we must seem to be flying away. Just my mother, cousin, a stable, reliable family friend and me, the youngest. “Two years since last time, I wonder what’s changed?” We stayed over a night, just south of the border and took an aeroplane the next day, today. Breakfast wasn’t worthy of mention, at least we could pass some time discussing ‘plane food’, all told it would be rather bland. “Plain, even.” Even before take-off there had been a nervous energy about us. The doors had sealed and we had been asked to hold our breaths as strong insect repellent (with a name I can’t pronounce) had been sprayed liberally over the dual aisles of seating. In the air now it is quiet, we know what we are getting into, no-one wants to speak much.
I have good memories of last time and the time before that and one more, before even that, and then nothing. The further back the memories go the less and still less I seem to remember. Lizard droppings in the bed that was supposed to be mine. Serving children older than me dinner simply because I was white, though I didn’t understand at the time. The elation of riding in the bed of a pickup truck speeding down a bumpy, dusty, wonderful dirt highway. The pain of a gash from wrist to elbow and the treasured Hawk’s feather I plucked for my trouble.
I have more recent memories too. Sitting high above a lonely savannah I rest my head back and immerse myself in past times, preparing for the coming weeks.
“Salébo-nyané, Linjané, Se-acóna, Se-apeela” The greetings.
* * *
On the final day, last time, my father and I walked together with our guides, from late afternoon until late twilight. The boys with us, to use abbreviated names; Dumi, Deli and Da the youngest, (to use their familial nicknames) knew the area well enough to get us back, as their father had told us, before dark, but we planned to stay out as late as possible. There isn’t enough water for big trees to grow, but shrubs and thorny bushes thrive on the flatter areas and depressions where some water seeps into the ground. Some of the way up each hill the soil peters out and reveals the bare granite that continues up the rest of the way. Hard climbing from here. My father and I struggled our way to the top and waiting there were three smiling faces. We walked for some minutes more across the top of the mountain, formed of a single, enormous granite slab. Atop its steep western slope we lay and watched the sun inch toward the thinning horizon. I still have a photo of that scene.
The Matopos hills stretched out for miles beyond us like Disney’s lion’s kingdom, but before the sun had set fully we had needed to head back. There are leopards in the hills all around where we were and they are nocturnal hunters.
We returned by a different route and as we crested the second-to-last granite hill, with long defined shadows stretching out before us, we came across a place that has haunted my memories since.
Arrayed in a naturally rough circle stood eight to twelve massive standing stones. Each the size of a house I later dubbed this place “Village-Top” in my mind. I almost wondered if it was real, because, without trees or other greenery in sight, in the centre was a perfectly smooth, circular lawn of trimmed grass and in its centre was growing a spindly little tree. It only came up to my fifteen year old shoulder and its branches furled out over the lawn as a guardian. It was so out of place that I still have that small worm of doubt, “Was it real?”
After some thinking I would explain most of the elements of that location, but the image of it stuck. I haven’t been back since. It is a scene that you might expect in a fantasy novel, but this is the real life and it might have changed from my memory. I won’t revisit it this trip.
We walked through the gate in deep twilight and were welcomed inward by our guides’ father and ushered around a makeshift grill to fry our own steaks, seasoned with salt.
My latest memory of a ‘home away from home’.
* * *
“Sé-abonga”, “Ncosi Ibubusése”, Thanks and blessings.
The sense of vertigo when a plane tilts unexpectedly to land can shock you out of any daydream but I knew it was coming. For the whole flight I had been preparing for these next minutes.
We land on a deserted airstrip and walk across the bare tarmacadam to the customs office. An Ebola warning and an unknown celebrity promoting circumcision stare us down as we enter and stare down at us as we fill out the forms. “Business trip”, “visiting friends/relations”, “We are bringing -X- US dollars into the country”. Up the counter, we pay for our VISAs. A suspicious frown as my mother goes through, I hand in my passport for its stamp. Checked forms, check passport, face brightens, and stamp acquired “Welcome to Zimbabwe Themba.” Only walking to collect our bags do I notice his loaded handgun, lying on the table, usually unused. Then the worn, but polished assault rifles held at ease by the security detail scrutinising us.
I still don’t believe the officer’s “Welcome” as I walk out twenty minutes later, my bags having been thoroughly checked. I’m the first out. Looking around, the one smiling face among nearly fifty catches my attention. The father of the family we stayed with last time walks up to me and proclaims, in a voice for the world to hear; “EEEYH Themba! You are Home!”