Sipho’s phone trembles on the floor when we hear the car hoot outside and I’m ripe for the Hill trip because my roommate and I have waited for weeks. Sipho taps my shoulder and we dash to the gate after I lock the door.
He pulls the back door and holds it for me. I’m still new in this country where a goggled man sits at the steering wheel while a little girl with startled, bushbaby eyes shifts right as I board the car. I dissolve her fright with a smile and find myself a place in the backseat where I belt up.
‘Prof.,’ Sipho starts, ‘my roommate here is a Kenyan.’
‘Oh, that’s great – wonderful,’ the man at the steering wheel turns and gives me his right hand. A thorough academic, an obvious revolutionary. ‘And I’m his PhD supervisor. You can call me Tinotenda.’
‘Prof. Tinotenda,’ Sipho corrects for my benefit.
‘Ah, leave this Mzansi man alone,’ Prof. Tinotenda looks at me. South Africans call their country Mzansi and everyone else who has stayed long enough obeys the rule. ‘Well, people call me that but I won’t mind just Tinotenda.’
I nod, ‘Thank you, Prof.’
‘Here to study as well?’
‘What, and what level?’
‘PhD in Geography, Prof.’
‘That’s great. Congratulations. –And seated beside you is my daughter. Kudzai. She sits her matric exams next year.’
‘Congratulations,’ I look at Kudzai’s bushbaby eyes again. Her teeth chatter to a stop, and the eyes glow at me with rays of respect which know how to flash their lights at new people. My hand clasps hers. Her fingers are so nervous and damp, I fear the teenage girl sweats, and her head does a spontaneous dance which makes her chin prick the back of my palm. ‘Pass well here in Mzansi and please don’t return to that lion’s den called Zimbabwe. Did I hear Mugabe made people carry money in wheelbarrows?’
‘You can say that again!’ Prof. Tinotenda cuts me and revs away the Chevrolet car. ‘The Sell-Out, Illegitimate Despot whose cronies from the Zezuru clan and immediate family have sucked us dry for forty years. War veterans aligned to him demanded for and got obscene pay-outs in 1997, grabbed land; Mugabe terrorised David Coltart and Roy Bennett, he seized white farms; army and the police rigged our 2008 elections, they almost killed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. They killed opposition supporters; Mugabe the Marxist-Leninist and his ruling Zanu-PF party have stolen elections for forty years.’
‘Promise me you will pass?’ I turn to Kudzai. The nervous teenager replies she would, Sir, in nothing less than impeccable English. She acquired the rolling accent here in Mzansi, right here in Bloemfontein, where Prof. Tinotenda and his family have been ever since what remained of the Harare Friesian cow balked, stopped walking to the non-existent stream, and fell in a thirsty heap over a decade ago. But no, Kudzai’s lubricated words are just what they have always been. For some reason the fish of Harare English has dainty dimples compared to the crocodile of words which plod along Nairobi’s streets.
We take pictures with our mobile phones under Mandela’s towering statue on Naval Hill as our eyes curse the sins of Bloemfontein’s apartheid past. The little I have read about this country tells me Lord Kitchener arrived from Khartoum and won the Anglo-Boer War for Britain because the British Wiltshire Regiment occupied Naval Hill under Kitchener’s command, from where London enjoyed vantage, routed President Steyn’s and General Christiaan de Wet’s Boer army, herded the Afrikaners into concentration camps in 1901 before Kitchener proceeded to parade his testosterone crotch onto Lord Curzon’s nose in India, and then the overbearing Kitchener left for Cairo. Prof. Tinotenda tells Kudzai and me Black South Africans founded the African National Congress in Bloemfontein City, and South Africa’s judicial capital was the heart of Afrikaner small-mindedness. Prof does not have to tell Sipho the same because my roommate’s father died in the 1976 Soweto Riots.
Many have come to Naval Hill, most of them white, and everyone takes pictures with Mandela’s statue smiling in the background, cars parked all over the Hill as lovers snuggle in each other’s arms, sigh, kiss.
‘How I love Mandela!’ Prof shields his eyes from the evening sun. ‘You know, the man reminds me of how black Chimurenga fighters entered the bush in Mozambique and Northern Rhodesia, fought for years, and defeated Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia. Our Zimbabwe. My fellow Ndebele man, Joshua Nkomo, was a wonderful leader but not Bishop Abel Muzorewa. The Shona Muzorewa was a complete Sell-Out. He collaborated with Ian Smith and formed a government of national unity before our independence in 1980.’ His right fist clenches, ‘Africa needs revolutionaries. Radicals even in academia.’
Kudzai takes the stand. Her father uses his phone to take still grabs of the daughter, Kudzai’s body stiffens, her teeth chatter, and the bushbaby bulbs on her face light again, compete with the orange sun rays.
‘Down we go,’ Prof rolls the Chevrolet downhill. ‘In a few weeks’ time I will drive Sipho and you to Eastern Cape and see the Steve Biko Centre in King William’s Town. Biko. Biko. Steve Bantu Biko. A great man. Great like your own Dedan Kimathi of Mau Mau was.’
‘Kudzai will go with us?’ I’m curious, but current runs through Kudzai’s body. It trembles against mine, the bushbaby bulbs glow.
‘No-no-no,’ Prof rebuts in a counter-argument, the forehead rolls into strings of flesh above his glasses, and I take it as just one of those jokes knowledgeable people engage in to relax after a whole day of baring their eyes at books whose pages outnumber the grass. Kudzai’s spongy body shrinks in inverse proportion to her father’s refusal.
‘He’s been deposed! Scoundrel! Despot!’ Prof is strident as we board again another day, outside our gate, after Sipho and I hear the honk we know his Chevrolet car for. He hasn’t come with Kudzai. President Robert Mugabe is no longer in power, the end of a days-long army blockade of the ageing man’s residence in Harare. ‘Mugabe was a Crook; he trained the 5th brigade in North Korea, made it kill twenty thousand of my Ndebele people in the 1980s during the Gukurahundi attacks; his wife shredded our economy through mega-corruption scandals of the Fokker Airplane, Zimbank-Lorral, and the National Housing scheme; misappropriated the National Heroes Acre for the burial of his trusted friends…Africa needs genuine revolutionaries, not Recalcitrant Turncoats of Mugabe’s ilk!’
Prof. drives us to Heidedal, a Bloemfontein location the apartheid regime built for Coloured South Africans. The first Intercape Bus we meet is long and ominous, its two chambers joined together trundle.
‘Just look at one of the legacies of the apartheid regime!’ Prof swears and the red-and-blue bus falls behind us. ‘Do you understand me, the Kenyan?’
‘Ha-ha, you East Africans,’ he winks to Sipho. ‘Not having had a substantial population of white settlers is a handicap if you intend to engage in an objective analysis of the racist, exclusivist European mind, and of despotism, othering, and ordering in Africa and her Diaspora. That’s why I studied Literature. Literature is the real deal. In the bus which we just met,’ Prof. turns to me, ‘White people rode in the front chamber, Black passengers in the rear one.’
On our way from Heidedal, we meet a double-decker Greyhound Bus leaving the Tourist Centre in the heart of Bloemfontein.
‘This one as well! Another ‘Mugabeish’ relic of apartheid. White passengers rode on top of Black passengers – apartheid was about power, space, and spatiality. My king, Lobengula of the Ndebele, was big and tall and huge and strong. He was a powerful man. The bus we just met has a toilet on the lower chamber; needless to say, it is situated right at the door to Black passengers’ lower chamber. The Kenyan now understands, I hope?’
President Robert Mugabe died in Singapore those past weeks, and Sipho and I visit Prof to pass time, have a braai, which Sipho and fellow South Africans call chisa nyama but we named it nyama choma in Nairobi. We roast the braai beef on naked coals outside, just behind the kitchen.
I have not seen Kudzai all this time although a small, talkative boy scampers everywhere in the tidy room – maybe she is in her room, where she reads for the upcoming matric exams. Kudzai’s mother attends to us with servile demureness, like a domestic convict whom the presence of visitors has won temporary reprieve. She brings more salt, more coals, the plates…and we prepare to wash our hands:
It is the bushbaby. Kudzai is on both knees, a jug of warm water in her right hand, her left carries the trough and handwash, a clean, white towel draped over her shoulder. She pours some for her father and gives him the towel. His wiping is tender. He returns the towel, Kudzai’s head curtseys, her teeth chatter. She crawls on her knees to Sipho next. I prepare.
My eyes meet the revolutionary academic’s behind his pair of glasses. We are both uneasy.
‘She’s –’ Prof. Tinotenda breaks. ‘Kudzai’s my eldest daughter – did I tell you that the last time I drove you people to Naval Hill?’
Image: Francisco Antunes via Flickr (modified)