SPRING 07: A letter from Chenjerai Hove
Added: January 2007 to ICORN Featured Writers
Chenjerai Hove's biography
A Letter to My Mother
It is a long time since I talked to you, now that your ageing ears can hardly hear the faint voice on this side of the telephone. But then, I sometimes wonder at the futility of writing this letter to you since you can't even read. Your eyes too are giving up, and you did not go to the mission school to learn the tricks of the written word. My late Angolan friend, Antonio Jacinto once wrote a poem about a lover who wanted to write his woman a letter, but then the man tragically realised that even he too cannot write, and his woman could not read:
... but you can't read
and I - oh the hopelessness - I can't write.
Remember the day I arrived in my new town, one of my many stops on this journey that is life. The rains at the airport in Stavanger brought me memories of you working in the fields, not shielding yourself from the warm raindrops. I remembered you then, way back in February, 2005. For, I knew you would have composed an instant poem to celebrate first raindrops, those songs about the fish eagle up in the sky, the harbinger of rain, giving life to people, animals and plants.
Here they still have not stopped cursing the rain. I always remind them that one who curses the rain is a witch who wishes that life should not be brought to this earth. But no, they still curse at their gentle, thunderless rain. They prefer the sun instead. Or the white snow which paints the street white as if cotton wool has embraced the whole earth. My fear of snow still persists, especially when it hardens and becomes slippery ice.
For me, a step on ice is a potential disaster. Ice is more slippery than the muddy clay soils of your maize fields. Norwegians hardly fall on ice. They float on it like Arabs walking on sand, never sinking, never falling. They even run races on the ice and win competitions! Can you imagine?
Oh, Norwegians, the things they do!
They built the city of Stavanger on the edge of the sea, as if to block it from coming further inland. Sometimes I dream that the houses hanging by the cliffs will one day fall into the sea.
By the way, I forget that you have never seen the sea. I remember you telling me stories about the place where all rivers poured their waters, in our language, gungwa (the water to quench all thirsts). It is just that, and Norwegians are people of the sea. They play in it, swim in it, dive in it, ride fast boats in it and fish there. They travel over the sea to many places. All their towns and villages are by the sea: it brings them everything they want, friends and enemies, food from far away places, and petrol which they discovered under the depths of the sea. The sea is full of so many creatures which you find on their plate for almost every meal. According to Norwegians, if you don't eat fish, like me, you are supposed to be miserable.
Yes, there is petrol under the water. I know you may not understand how petrol can be found under the water, but Norwegians found it many years ago. It is the source of their wealth just as the soil, cattle and people are our own wealth.
Petrol has made them rich, and they seem to forget that many years ago, they were poor, and so became wanderers to other lands in search of life and fortune, just like us.
Still, they have not given up their first question when I meet them. 'Where do you come from?' they ask, as if they learnt that question the first thing they were born. I have come to accept it as their greeting. I laugh at them when they refuse to accept that I have now become some kind of one of them. But then I think we are also like them. We called ourselves 'vanhu' (the people) and all strangers had other names. I have come to know that every people is like that; everyone else is something else, and we are the only genuine 'vanhu' (the people) and human dignity is 'hunhu', a good person, always measured on how the stranger fits into our ways of life.
'The weather is cold, and Norwegians are cold,' one African I met said to me when I arrived. It might be true. I have also discovered that Norwegians are like a diesel engine, they take time to warm up to you. As they warm up to a stranger and become friends, they are prepared to die for you. Their warming up is slow but sure, like a good diesel engine!
winter comes with skiis
summer brings some smiles,
if it does not rain.
Normally, Norwegians are deep in silence. Forget about the noise you hear in the streets of Harare, or in the village in Gotami's country down there in Chireya. Here they are silent, and it is the silence which explodes into your ears as soon as you arrive in their lands. No, they are not afraid of strangers. They are too shy to venture into the life space of anyone, including their own people. It takes time for them to remove that veil of silence which sometimes shields them so much from the possibility of laughter and the good humour which enkindles the human spirit in times of sorrow and despair.
Norwegians have their own traditional dish: boiled potatoes, vegetables and lamb. I have tried it and not thought much of it. They tell me it comes from the old days when they were still poor. I prefer my own Zimbabwean sadza (thick maize flour porridge) with goat or beef stew, and rice with chicken on Sundays and Christmas. You should have seen how many hours I spent searching for maize flour in the shops. When I found it, the evening meal was the best I had ever had for months. It surprises me when I see Norwegians eat small pieces of chicken and a few green vegetables and call it a meal.
For a dinner with a Norwegian, I make sure I have some money in my own pocket, just in case. It is not like home where people invite you for dinner in the restaurant and all you have to bring is a sharp appetite. Here, when the bill comes, you have to know what you ate and drank so you split the bill. At first it shocked me. With time I got used to it. I now know that sometimes when they take the family for a meal, wife and husband look into their individual pockets to pay. It is probably a healthy arrangement since no one drinks from their uncle's purse in these lands. Everyone is their own uncle!
Women and men, that is an interesting topic. The women of Norway are strong. They rule the house and ensure that everyone cleans the house, takes the dog for a walk, and takes the children to and from school. Everyone cooks and everyone washes the dishes. So different from home where the man is the father of the house, some kind of king. Not here. The women a tough: they can even expel the man from the house if he neglects his duties. The women of these lands do not tolerate mischievous men like the women of home.
I know you come from the old generation where you were taught to think that a woman without a man is nothing. Here most women don't even want to marry their men. They just live together, like what we call 'kuchaya mapoto' (living together sharing the pots). I talked to many young Norwegians about marriage and they always look at me as if I am crazy. 'I don't want trouble,' one Norwegian friend says to me.
You will not believe it: but this country is expensive. The price of a pint of beer is the same as the price of a whole goat back home. A loaf of bread costs the same as three live chickens. Can you imagine!
But Norwegians manage well. I walk down the street and the only thin people I see are usually always foreigners. Everyone can afford three good meals a day if they want, plus a place to sleep. If their government was like our government in Zimbabwe which sometimes enjoys destroying people's houses, Norwegians would all have died a long time ago in the cold. What we call 'cold' is really 'warm' for Norwegians.
You see mother, I am writing you so you can understand my new life and the people I share it with.
I was not too surprised to find that Norwegians enjoy the company of dogs and cats. They keep them as friends, not for hunting or killing the rats. No. And they keep them inside the house. I am told some even share their beds with the dog or the cat. What a scandal it would be back home.
But they are better than the French. You remember I was in France before I came here? The French love their dogs and cats. They are prepared to die for them. I once joked with a woman who always walked around with a tiny little dog. She sometimes carried it in her basket, with the head popping out as if it were in a circus. I joked that where I come from we eat dogs, but added that I would not worry about her little dog because it was too small to make two small bowls of dog soup. The woman broke down crying. She threatened to report me to the police: that I wanted to eat her dog. It took me time and energy to calm her down and convince her that it was only a joke.
Norwegians and the French spend so much money on dog food and care. Not like home where dogs wait for left-overs of everything. I understand the Germans are even worse. When I once said to a German friend 'I don't want to be treated like a dog,' he laughed and said he would prefer to be treated like a German dog. 'Dogs have a better life here than people', he said. We laughed it off, but I think it is true. A missing dog is big news in the papers.
But in my city, there is a woman who has a house full of cats. Her life is dedicated to caring for abandoned cats. People think she is mad, but she does not mind. At least she is assured of never seeing a rat in her house!
Norway has such a beautiful array of mountains, hills, valleys and rivers intricately woven together into one. I wonder where anyone who intends to farm could have done it. Small farms miserably scatter through the valleys, with a few sheep dotted on the landscape, or maybe a cow or two. What they call a farm in these parts is really the size of a large garden in our country. No wonder why they buy most of their food from other parts of the world. Just the other day I ate Namibian impala meat in a restaurant. It was delicious, but I missed the bones that should have come with it. In these parts, they do not like the joy of struggling to tear off meat from bones during a meal.
The only wild animal that Norwegians can hunt is one called a reindeer. I have seen one a year ago when I travelled north. It is like some big wild goat up there in the mountains. Reindeer steak tastes like buffalo which, as you know, I never liked in my youth when the hunters used to kill them for us in the 1960s.
No, I should not spend so much time writing about animals. It makes me homesick, thinking about all those elegant giraffes, elephants and lions roaming our countrysides.
You will wonder if they also have elections here. Yes, of course. The other day I was walking in the street in the gentle rain. Four young men and two women stopped me to give me flowers. A red rose. They were campaigning for their political party by giving voters flowers, they told me. I almost fainted in shock. I told them that in my country they would be wielding sticks, stones and pangas to threaten me with death if I did not vote for their party. Remember the ruling party militias who stopped you and threatened to beat you up if you did not have a party card? Here they would probably have bought you a drink and given you a rose. It is a different world.
Only recently, I was flying to the capital, Oslo. The captain announced to us: 'Welcome to Your Majesty and to you all ladies and gentlemen.' I looked around and did not see any majesty around. Since I was the only African on the plane, I thought they had mistaken me as some kind of royal because of our Mazvihwa royalty. But then, Majesty is for a woman. I asked a stewardess whether this was a joke of some kind.
'No,' she smiled. 'The Queen of Norway is sitting right there in front,' she pointed.
Then I was puzzled. No special security. No special seat for the Queen. Economy class like everyone else. It reminded me of another trip where I sat next to a young woman. When we introduced each other, it turned out she was the minister of defence. In another city, I was the Guest of Honour to open a literature festival, and the minister of culture was to speak after me.
The minister had also arrived late because of a technical problem on her plane. When I suggested that she should have grabbed the nearest plane and 're-routed it' to her destination, she looked sternly at me and said: 'You want my government to fall, hey? The people will force us to resign tomorrow morning.'
In all this, I thought of home: how no one would never sit next to President Mugabe in economy class, how I would probably never be allowed to sit next to the minister of defence, how security police would have sealed off the whole airport if the President was arriving or leaving, and how there would have been hired dancing women with dresses 'decorated' with the face of the president.
Mother, in this country, I think power has not yet gone to their heads. Maybe it was in their heads long ago and the people managed to push it out and place it on the proper shelf of humbleness and service to the people.
Maybe your attacks of malaria will already be haunting you. There is no malaria in this country. The little mosquitoes they have are as harmless as pieces of flying paper. No one bothers much about them. But this is not to say there are no diseases here. They have different kinds of illnesses, some to do with the mind, others to do with eating too much wrong food, and maybe others to do with a life controlled too much by watches and clocks. You should see how they walk in the street. They rush to everywhere as if in a permanent state of emergency. Slowing down might help reduce some of their tensions.
I sometimes think they do not use the medicine called laughter enough. They have forgotten that laughter drives out sorrow from the human heart and mind. I wish they could read the poem called 'Laugh' by Tanzanian poet Shaban Roberts:
Laugh to heal your wounds, laugh to
send away your troubles,
Laugh to allow the body to grow in
health and vigour.'
Mother, you might wonder if there are other strangers like me in my town. Yes, I meet them. Most of them are escapees from one misfortune or other. They tell me bitter memories of their original homes, home bitter home, they remind me. Like me, they miss home, but they loathe the possibility of returning to the jaws of poverty and political repression.
It is Christmas time now. I hope this time they will go to church. Most of the time the churches are empty but over the years religion has become part of the way they think and organise life. For Christmas, they buy and buy and buy and buy as if possessed by the spirit of shopping. It is Christmas without the poor baby Jesus Christ, born in a dirty cattle pen.
As winter has swallowed everybody and taken away their bright smiles, I see their faces yearning for summer already. Norwegians love to celebrate summer. It is the return of the sun which vanishes soon after the afternoon meal in winter. Summer is time for festivals in this country. There is a festival for everything: literature festival, oil festival, humour festival, dance festival, wine festival(although they do no make wine), jazz festival, rock festival, food festival, everything comes with a festival. That is the way it was many years before the coming of the missionaries who taught us that festivals to celebrate the rain were pagan.
So, mother, you can see how complex life is here, with its ups and downs. As I yearn for the voices of home, I begin to think there are more downs here than ups. The voices of home, the music of our birds and the beauty of our setting sun, they weave patterns in my dreams as live this never-ending desire to be home one day.
I hope the thunderous rains have come by now. Maybe the maize you planted is already the height of a small child. Every sun which rises give me fresh memories of you, and every early sunset reminds me that I am in other lands. Maybe one day we will sit together, switch off the street lights and gaze at the beauty of that lovely African moon which displays the image of a rabbit with large ears. Maybe I will be older, but I will not have given up the idea of being young.
Now I know that there are so many streams to the river of knowledge, and one of them is to live in other lands.
© 2007 Chenjerai Hove
printable file for Hove's biography and Letter to My Mother