Petal Thoughts : Yvonne Vera

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There was a Prefect at the bathroom door who ticked off your name once you had successfully delivered the water and placed it on the bathroom floor where it would be neatly arranged next to other basins. In the morning, we lined up again to stand next to a basin full of water.

Normally, two girls would share a basin of water. One had to pray that whoever brought the water filled it up, otherwise there would not be enough to rinse off with. We washed up quickly, because the water was ice cold. One or two girls had to have their waters boiled because of one complication or other. However, the mission to have hot water was so complicated that often, these girls eventually ended up washing with cold water like the rest of us. Once finished, we would run to the dormitories to dress up in our uniforms before running as fast as we could to queue for church.

But woe unto you if you were caught dozing! It either meant a few canes on your backside or some weird punishment like carrying sacks of maize and beans from the main storeroom a kilometre away to the dining room. When I grow up I will have the right tools for the right things I am tired, bored and ashamed of making do Cause I know I can do. When I was twelve-years old I had thick hair that went down to my knees which many admired.

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But with lovely knee-length hair on my head, came hair well, just about everywhere else which spanned definitions of fluff to course: a well-defined moustache that to this day I am at war with, thick well-meaning eyebrows, eyebrows in between eyebrows, a goatee a belated joy of adulthood , under my arms, on my arms, my back, my stomach and even hairier legs that tried to desperately hide my bean stalk legs and, in failing to do so, only caused me more embarrassment.

My new liberty came with the price of ripping off the skin in every place that had a tendon connected to my foot which hurt every time you took a step for at least a week. When I was seventeen years old and in Matric, I persuaded my father to buy me an Epilady shaver, that was said to skim over the skin, pulling out the hair by the root and thereby delivering two or three weeks of hairless, smoooooth legs.

I yearned desperately for that promise for months on end after seeing the advert on TV, as the beautiful white woman effortlessly moved the noiseless Epilady shaver over her tanned, long leg, gliding her hand over the silky smooth surface of her skin thereafter. My dad generously gave in and one Saturday morning, with the household to myself, I sat in the bathroom with my Epilady.

But that little surprise was soon overtaken by the horrific shock of the louder clogging sound as it mercilessly grabbed my three hairs per pore, yanking it ruthlessly from below the skin, resulting in a red bumpy pore that was clearly in as much shock and pain as the rest of me. And that was just one pore!!! True, the pamphlet had said it might hurt a bit the first time. And this was the very first time. As tears flooded my face down one stretch of leg, red little bumps appearing everywhere after the clogging whrrr of the Epilady, it suddenly stopped.

Just stopped. Maybe a part of me hoped the Epilady could be resurrected to fulfil its two to three week promise. Fifteen years late, the Epilady finally saw the inside of a dustbin. My heart is broken. I have lost an old friend. From now on, life will be something less.

I am approaching It is I was a 19 year old Rhodes University student, struggling my way through issues of sexuality and race.

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Boys dated me because they thought I was a lesbian, I dated boys because I was trying not to be one. And so, I brought a boy home for the holidays to prove my heterosexuality. Nothing bad happened. Angels were looking out for us. I think he understood the danger. I know I did not. South Africa under apartheid brought about strange and ridiculous dilemmas. During the day my parents would go out to work, whilst he and I spent the day in bed.

I feel guilty about those days. At the time my parents assumed I was trying to rock the racial boat. I was trying to rock the boat all right, but not in the way they imagined. Sade Adu, however, does rock. It was more than post-natal depression. Two beings of light told me that there was no coming back after this and that if I wanted to see my daughter grow up, I would have to get to hospital immediately.

I looked at this beautiful child next to me who needed her mother. She was smiling at me and playing. How could I possibly let her grow up without a mother? I called out Ksheka in the next room and managed to tell her that I had taken something.

I woke up at hospital with two very angry nurses changing the bed linen. It was December and ten other patients had attempted suicide because of Y2K and thought the world was coming to an end. The nurses were fed up of suicide cases, after all who would want to help someone who tried to kill themselves when they were people in Acute Care struggling against critical injuries and terminal illnesses. I wanted to live more than anything else in this world. I was eight years old at the time and this was my first encounter with death.

A few days later we attended the funeral in Warmbaths where most of my family lived including my grandparents. I remember feeling very anxious while watching a coffin being lowered down into the ground and I still remember the smell of the mountain of fresh soil next to the hole where he was being buried. The rest of the week was spent in Warmbaths with the family and sometime during this time I saw a video that ended up haunting me for about 18 years of my life — the death of my grandfather caught on video tape. I remember the scenario of how I an eight year old came to see a video of my grandfather passing away — his eyes rolling into the back of his head and people yelling and screaming.

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My mother decided to watch it for the first time. For a few weeks after these events I had dreamt a lot about my grandfather and him coming back from the dead. And for years I felt haunted by the video, only remembering the horror of it all, especially when we visited the grave something we did for many years every time we went to visit in Warmbaths. For many years I had wondered about where that tape was and how it would be to see it again, but never dared to ask my mom, avoiding any chance for tears from her.

So this became a great opportunity to satisfy my curiosity yet again. My sister and I began to convert the footage from the tape and once we had it, we suddenly discovered something we never thought would happen. We discovered a work of art. The video displays footage from the 6th of June of my grandfather telling a story about an experience he had during World War II.

According to my grandmother, this was the first time he had ever spoken about his participation in the war. The day of the footage was a day of celebration as the family welcomed my grandfather home after being discharged from the hospital. Someone we are unsure who decided to test out their new video camera during this gathering.

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It became a day of storytelling and my grandfather slowly but surely began revealing a secret he had kept buried for almost five decades. This story would ultimately end up to be the very last one he would tell, the very last secret he would ever disclose. Now after 18 years of never having watched the video our family is reminded of a terrible day, but one that if we look back on it now, was one of wonder and amusement. No one really knows who the camera man is and no one really seems to care.

Now years later, our family is less intrigued by the death in the video and more interested in the secret my grandfather reveals. A secret of a bomb buried in Soekmekaar, the place where my mom and her three sisters grew up. But for me who only knew my grandfather for a very short time of which I only really recall his funeral, these events have sparked some interesting experiences for me.

For years I had glorified the video in my head as something horrific and to my surprise death brought so much more. I was amazed at how I had over the years added scenes in my head that I thought were in the video and how I made it worse than it really was. Ones we feel shaped who we are and how we act? After my brother and I are dead, the Gule family line from my grandfather, William Gule, will come to an end in the patriarchal sense.

I mention this fact because there has always been in my upbringing the idea that the Gule family name, along with the values that were transmitted to us, via my parents, by my grandparents, had to continue. In some ways this physical death is an apt analogy for another kind of death. This death of sorts is not only afflicting my family but is something that is sweeping through other mini-dynasties in the communities of Black South Africans. At some point in the 19th century a group of them decided that they were no longer Zulu or Xhosa, and as in the case of my forebears, Swazi.

They had become a new nation of Christians. Somehow or other they had managed to secure three large pieces of land from missionaries. The one piece of land is in Nyanyadu, near Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, the other in a place called Driefontein near Ladysmith also in KZN and the other was in the fertile valley of the river Umsunduzi near Pietermaritzburg.

In these places they forged a kind of landed aristocracy. In some ways it was radical for its times. They insisted for instance that the female children were to have equal educational opportunities and they were entitled to an equal share of inheritance as the male children. They built schools with money they had earned as proto-capitalist farmers. They were independent of the traditional monarchy, and the colonial government. Of course there were such initiatives in places like the Eastern Cape and other parts of the country. In addition to being amakholwa they were also izifundiswa, the learned ones.

Depending on which side you happened to be born these terms came to mean different things. Although I cannot say that anyone could have taken pride in the term amaqaba, the onontlevu were quite proud of this mark of distinction but those that my kin called amaqaba used the term onontlevu in a pejorative, derisive way. Prior to or thereabouts I could say, with some degree of confidence, that if you encountered a Black African in some profession or other there was also a strong likelihood that their lineage could be traced to these elite communities.

One unfortunate side-effect of this was a self-induced Anglicisation of these ancestors of mine. Feigned English airs became a mark of distinction. This was satirised by Prof. Sibusiso Nyembezi in his novel later made into a television series Inkinsela yase Mgungundlovu The Swindler from Pietermaritzburg. The main character introduced himself as Mr. CC Ndebenkulu Esq. This Anglicisation also meant that they took on English morality, manners and habits. Choral and classical music became their choice of entertainment.

No traditional dances or playing of the drums and no traditional ceremonies or rites of passage. In our house as I was growing up we were forbidden from listening to what was then called Radio Zulu and the serialised radio dramas that we liked and listened to in secret. My grandmother hated umgqashiyo and umaskandi that was the staple of ethnic radio stations. That was music for amaqaba. We, the learned ones, listened to Radio Port Natal Port Natal was the name that colonialists had first given to the port city of Durban. Another side effect was a kind of incest that pervades the learned ones.

Quite logically of course many went to the same schools and colleges. Wedlock, tutelage, professional connections, family ties were nodes in a web of alliances that ensured that this aristocracy had a material and racial class structure but also class consciousness.

That legacy is now on the brink of extinction. My generation is probably the last that still holds onto any notion of pride emanating from this history. I would like to claim that this death of onontlevu is due to internal rebellion but it probably has more to do with other factors. For one thing the colonial and later the apartheid regimes demanded that Africans rich and poor should be confined to the same geographic areas. As a result the spatial and racial purity of the amakholwa got diluted.

Some of us were forced to go to government schools unlike my parents who went only to the missionary schools. There we were confronted with people with different values, who believed in ancestors and witchcraft and other things that we considered superstitious nonsense. At this point it might be worthwhile to point out that according to the unwritten rules of this landed aristocracy having money as in the case of many unlearned business people did not qualify a person to be one of them. For the most part however, I think that the biggest blow to this legacy was the fact that Black professionals and business people could only live and plough their trade amongst other Black people.

This meant that at some point or another even the learned and wealthy Black folk had to rely on the generosity, solidarity or revenue generated from the ranks of the poor and the unlearned. On a micro scale there is another decisive factor that contributed to the demise of this black gentry. The factor is best illustrated by story I was told about a fellow whose mother was a teacher at my primary school. His is a familiar story. There are indeed many ways of dying, some are more stealthy than others.

The fortunes of people even within the same family and the same generation and the same social strata often vary radically such that sometimes the only thing that those to whom life and fortune has been less kind can hold onto is the notion that they belong to a prestigious lineage and have a level of education, though incomplete, that is above that of the next person. In my family fortunes have not always been good. In my father had a stroke which stopped him working and a financial crisis ensued. My mother has done well in the goals she set herself that all her children would have tertiary education.

She may have sacrificed her own goals to help my father become the doctor that he was but in the eyes of the many of the present-day nontlevu she has done exceptionally well. The emergence of a new political elite also set things out of kilter for me and my kind.

Whereas previously many leaders in the liberation movement such as the ANC were primarily also products of missionary education but with the intensification of the anti-apartheid struggle another political elite emerged, one that was drawn from other constituencies such as civic movements and trade unions.

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This political leadership became the new standard by which social values and status could be measured. The democratic era which enabled the political elite and the nouveau riche to emerge, has significantly eroded the high esteem to which people of the nontlevu persuasion had been held. There are many monuments to the amakholwa legacy: the schools I have mentioned above, many of the early Black newspapers were initiated by them, for some time much of literature, theatre and intellectual output by Black Africans in South Africa came about through their efforts.

This not a lament at the demise of the old elite. Its death is a natural development that mirrors among others changes in the political regime of the country, the changing local and international economic climate, and the dissolution of old political and class forms of patronage including that of the British ex-pat middle class after whom my forebears had modelled themselves.

If those of us who still hold values that are different from the of primitive accumulation that marks the post apartheid moment it is our duty to learn from both the successes and the failures of the people that populate our history, including people like my grandparents and the elite Black class they fashioned so as to survive and thrive even as colonialism was bent on eroding any and all vestiges of humanity that Black people possessed. And perhaps their legacy lies not in the preservation of blood-lines nor in physical monuments of the sort that the British and Afrikaaners built to their exploits and heroes but in the fact that we can learn something from them and that the nobler side of their mission will not be entirely lost on us and the coming generations.

Born in Ubah to the Bahumono clan, in the river area of Cross River State, Anozeng lived very happily with his siblings, four brothers and a sister. The eldest, Obeten, was five years older than him and was seen as big brother of the family in many regards. The second, a once stoutly built young man who become a shadow of his previous looks, was three years older than him while his younger ones Ada, Brendan and Egbe were three, five and seven years younger than him respectively.

Everyone loved to have a good home and this family looked up to Obasi to sustain and bring them to their destiny.

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One morning, while they were in their village Ubah, Anozeng and his sister Ada decided to follow other villagers to hunt for periwinkles along the Ubah swamps which are bounded by Bhatebha to the west and Bhazumutong to the north towards Othumusa the ancestral home of the Bhahumonos. Not familiar with the terrain, since they had not been staying in the village but in the local government headquarters in Obubra, it was not easy to locate places except those they had been to in the village and, for this reason, both children needed to be very careful as they followed other villagers for the periwinkle hunting.

But Anozeng was too adventurous for a nine year old and soon while every other person in the group kept a close distance to ensure that they could all converge together again and return home as a group, he sneaked off. Thus, the task of having everybody go home together was not to be achieved as Anozeng had wandered away to a far side of the bush and could not retrace his steps back to where the group was. Soon Ada realized that her brother had been out of sight for longer than was comfortable and she started looking around and asking individuals of the group if they had any clue as to the direction her brother went.

But no one seemed to remember if they saw him walk off. Young Ada could not contain her panic and started shouting his name loudly with as much strength and ability that she could muster as a six year old. Soon it was the concern of the whole group to take turns in shouting his name in a bid to signal Anozeng to where they were. The day was already far spent and getting too late and dark to find their way back home. Some night birds heralded the nightfall with their hooting and toads and frogs jumped about making quaking sounds also indicating the fast approaching night, yet Anozeng was nowhere close to be found.

Meanwhile the group needed to return home and without any further effort, since the night was fast approaching and all previous efforts in search of Anozeng was in futility, the periwinkle hunters in company of Ada went home. At the moment no one seemed to have a clue as to what the little Ada was imagining because she seemed to be more assuring in her comportment as one who could well have answers to questions she was probable to be asked.

Maybe her age betrayed her innocence in a way that seemed suggestive of a child who cannot and is still in dilemma of what she did and whether her actions and inactions counted so much that she appeared somewhat strong to betray her hidden anxieties. However, this strength would have been gained after the frantic efforts she made to find Anozeng in the bush and possibly leaving the issue to fate as though a brighter light would come at the end of the tunnel as her eyes seemed to glow with hope despite all the events of the day.

Was their mother, going to see it as a mere coincidence that could have happened to any other child who is not conversant with the Ubha village and environs, or as a calculated attempt by some unscrupulous people in the society to be vindictive? Not sure of what to do but determined that the truth must be told of what transpired in the bush that resulted in her brother missing, she decided to brace up and divulge every bit of the details of the incident to her mother.

She immediately beveled to the ground and at this point the magnitude of her action and decision to go for the periwinkle expedition crossed her mind again. This time it was with great feeling of guilt as she remembered that she would have at least saved the life of her cherished brother Anozeng if only she did not show interest for, and taken the bold step to approve of, their periwinkle hunting. At this point she was brought back to the stark reality of what their very action of disappearance from the house may have wrought as she imagined what it may have caused their mom, and she rather felt very sorry and remorseful for the multiple crimes that she alone would be made to answer to on the event that Anozeng was not eventually found.

But nature soon had its toll on Ada as the cold breeze of the night blew in toward her direction and she could no longer hide as she sneezed and startled her mother from her hiding place. Nevertheless, she asked a second time and now in a more steady voice and tone she asked. It was surprising to her that the tone and manner she asked the question could not send out the needed impact she thought her question should ignite from her mother.

It was at this point that Ada noticed that her brother Anozeng was carried shoulder high by the bigger boys among the crowd and then she also recognized the voices and names of some of the earlier periwinkle group members. But it was later after the group had dispersed that Anozeng explained the circumstances which led to his being saved in the bush. One thing was certain and that is that Bahumonos where not known to be cannibals, perhaps if the bush was in certain parts of the state, people would have speculated that man-hunters would have picked him for other purposes.

Worst still if that happened now it would have been a terrible thing to imagine since the once peaceful Bahumono clan had recorded two inter-village wars. Anozeng panted all through as he narrated his survival story especially because no one was certain as to the types of animals that are still in that bush, maybe some wild life could eat him up, and maybe the myth of humans who can transform themselves into wild animals as a test of the supernatural powers they possess is another threat to why people still fear that bush. However, no one has ever verified such strange stories but the tales abound in this part of the world of great men who could transform themselves to anything they so wished to create havoc or show their supremacy over other humans.

And stories abound as to how her deceased father was so sick and in a state of coma and when his favourite child Mama was sent for and came to see him he was revived by only hearing her voice after more than three days of being silent and also considered almost dead. Furthermore it was known that he gave up the ghost shortly after she travelled back with her husband Egbe to their station Obubra where they domiciled and called the country-home.

It would take many years for her two children to understand and read the meaning of such encomiums on a dead man. For as their mother explained to her children, it was her late father that had taken on the persona of the old man who saved Anozeng and brought him to the safe path where he could make his way home. This indeed left some puzzles in the minds of these two children and they could never come to terms with the mystery surrounding such ghostly or ancestral protection especially since their mother was a Christian and ought to know better than that.

Nevertheless the children never discussed the incident among themselves again maybe because it was scary. But could this also be because of the sensitive nature and magnitude of the incidence which was capable of swallowing Anozeng, or that the subject matter of ghost or ancestors was not a much cherished talk? Either of these reasons could have been responsible for the silence that enveloped and marked the near closure of this topical concern. Ada was very happy to attend to the errand her mother sent her on which was to get some money from the family hotel which was a building next to their main house and just a couple of meters away.

Joyfully she ran there, got the money which they were meant to use as offering for the Christmas Carol Mass, and as she tried to walk back to the house she immediately felt a strange aura but since she could see almost clearly, because the environment was bright from the electricity light which her family was privileged to have especially because of the business premises they lived in, she felt there was no cause for alarm.

Meanwhile, the aura that seemed to have eclipsed her was frightening but she did not sense any danger, rather she thought to herself that the house was close enough to run to for safety and just then she noticed that an old man had advanced towards her with a supersonic jet speed and immediately delved a big slap on her left jaw.

That was the last thing she remembered when she woke up a few hours after the incidence and found out that she was laid in one of the hotel rooms occupied by a lodger Dr Chukwuemeka who had been a guest in their hotel for close to nine months now, as was routine for newly posted doctors to be accommodated in the hotel while awaiting permanent housing, or if they were just going to be in Obubra hospital for a year or thereabout. It was just then that she discovered that her mother and older brothers were also among the people she saw and even though some ray of hope of her safety could be imagined on seeing family members, she was yet to come to terms with the sordid reality.

At this point it seemed she had forgotten what day it was or what activity she was supposed to be involved with. While in the room her mother gave her a nice flowery dress which was about her best except for the new Christmas dress which she was to wear the next day. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. Places, places are still there. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. Right in the place where it happened.

Vera is the guardian of Zimbabwean rememory, holder of truths that are, in some cases inconvenient, or disappointing, or regrettable. He has never seen the Falls. He relies on this hodgepodge of hearsay and observation, but gives beauty and control the uppermost, inductively reasoning that the Falls must be blue — if water on maps is blue, if the sky is blue.

The painter and writer can revise, can insert, can alter and shift and move around, staying true to inductive principles but honoring beauty. Art is also the purview of dream and imagination. But unlike the painter, who aims to achieve beauty through reason and truth, the sculptor knows there are other avenues for art. Will it be a giraffe or an elephant? Like his dreaming, each carving is different, unique; spoiled, even, like his giraffe whose paint has run, and whose neck is comically short. He may seem the lesser artist by strictly aesthetic standards, but there is no question that he is an honest man, making honest art.

The two artists — the painter and the sculptor — represent the collaborative pull between beauty and honesty, between pleasure and pain, thinking and dreaming. I was at the end of my stay at the library — quite literally; it was to close for the weekend in an hour and I was scheduled to leave town just after. Instead, they simply are: they endure, they are beautiful. In spite of colonial thefts, an independent Zimbabwe achieved their return; they roost once more at the site of rememory, presiding near the complex stone ruins that have fascinated throughout history.

Something that city people have seen. Even a rat would be good there are lots of rats in the township! Why instead did she lyrically inhabit the past, the full sweep of local history?

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Probably because she understood that the greatest foundations of art lie not in the mimetic transcription of things exactly as they are now, but rather in the imaginative flight through the past into the present and back again. Rememory exists anywhere where trauma, pain, violence, extremity has occurred, and there is no place where that is not true. Petina Gappah, a vital contemporary Zimbabwean writer, recently swore in a talk at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town that she was done with writing contemporary Zimbabwe after her impressive Rotten Row appeared in print — she wanted to explore the possibilities of writing elsewheres and elsewhens, to delve into history and unearth new old stories.

You have heard of them, no? Of course not. It is an old — for lack of a better word — guild that has been there for as long as our people have been around. Memorykeepers are rare indeed; not even every African literature has such an honest, exposed, and vulnerable writer. Indeed, not every African literature is capable of absorbing the persisting, the inconvenient truths.

There will always be those who seek to wrest the past in service of a future that they desire, instead of honouring the past for the truths it has produced, in spite of its violences. Such manipulators of truth and history — regardless of their position or power — should never supplant those brave enough to tell us unpalatable truths about ourselves.

There is no honor in easy deceit, in palatable fictions. Petal Thoughts. Gweru, Mambo Press, Morris, Jane, Ed. Moving On and Other Zimbabwean Stories. Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eyes. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, Knopf, Vera, Yvonne. Butterfly Burning. Harare, Baobab, The Stone Virgins. Harare, Weaver Press, Toronto, TSAR, Your email address will not be published.

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Petal Thoughts : Yvonne Vera Petal Thoughts : Yvonne Vera
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