Zimbabwe in August
a traveller lugs his grip and kitbag
fingers his airline ticket, stands and sits
the stultified hours of waiting
an artist marches singing to Zimbabwe
to set up easel and draw.
gleaming off air-glass
up above fortunes of freshly-turned snow
Below the countryside of cloud, lands dicker,
invent strange tributes, arcane laws of trespass,
are flooded by debt and parched by debt . . . but up here
(as if in a stateless future)
miracles are achieved –
South of Harare
the long road covers
a bruised dream.
When will we work for ourselves?
When will my children go to school?
When will we avoid seeing
who dropped in to grub a hole in the ground
and hijacked our territories
who looked at a fair plain and decreed a town
named after their Prime Minister
now we have a Prime Minister
we have the towns and names
and next to the Sheraton Hotel
a new Zanu-PF headquarters
for a united party,
but on this road a week back
were two bulls fighting
the cows gathered round
after prolonged beeping they moved off
then took the road again.
Twenty huts on a string
small children, small animals
pots and pans and laughter
cooking, bare-armed, on the spotless floor
suckling a child, carrying a babe in a back-net
piling in everywhere to see the strangers
as we were taken down the village
and at every stop such courtesy
such grace and putting-at-ease
I tell you I was a millionaire among that rubble,
but more, I was rubble among millionaires
flourished circa 1830
his second son had thirteen wives
now Christine Madembo who is training as a teacher
introduces us to her great-grandmother
who is sheltering a tiny child.
In Mandive Primary
flowers and red trees
make lovely the playground
and underlying everywhere
in this building of the young
warmth, spontaneity and order
‘Our exercise book is our pick
Our textbook is our hoe
Our pencil is our hammer
The rest spade bucket and shovels’
The library a tattered shelf-ful
meagre chairs, a low table the staffroom
This school has won the prize for the province!
I am angry
she cried out as I reached her spot in the market:
No-one is buying my pots!
A vast open-air roadside display of artefacts,
carvings from soapstone, from wood, ceramics, woven bed-spreads,
a constant exhibition of Man the Poet-of-things.
I have been here four years, since school
one told me as he shaved at an abstract of three heads
– two small, one larger, linked as if by arms –
a trinity of strength and tenderness.
Sculptors, carvers, knitters, potters
shape the world into gold.
I bought a pot from the angry woman
and watched tiny poultry being made, clay-spheres built by hand,
pots painted, and elephants and birds carved,
until I met the same people millennia ago.
the light sand of a dry riverbed.
Five minutes of silent walking
will see us to the other side
and a grandstand view of hippo.
In summer the river burst on down
bridge-shattering . . . but now our spoor is added
to that of a thousand animals.
I have never been more in the open.
We cut off the bend of a river.
There they are, basking and bathing in No-man’s-pool.
A bird screamed in the guti
boulders came to rest
as the mist cleared
they were the kings of state
long before men came
and women climbed up with water
and lives sank beneath the stone palace
that matched and married the hill
Man and Nature
no finer unity
no more inevitable result
but in these ruins
when the white mist hides the warriors below
and billows of wind sweep parleying chiefs away
a bird’s voice screams
I am on a great ship
yards and alleys and the red sandy floor
are pitched in a sea
in which we
on a beautiful afternoon when all comes to rest
and the circling enclosures and towers pass the time of day
with the peaceful gods of stone once torn from mountains
we also recall
the impossible opposing of forces at birth, at Creation
and the beauty of a new country.
Up in the Matopos Hills
their eyes are always open
they see for us
when we are blind
for the root of each life
they are the earth and rain
they have passed through death and life
they guide us, they call to us
but we must turn and listen
and go to them, and never dishonour them
and never will we be uprooted from them.
Down in Bulawayo
St. Patrick’s is packed for the words of Father Vincent
the spark of love and a great bonfire of singing
the warmest colours and the most outward silence
as a candle-flame grows straight in each one’s life.
The fire of Christianity
has lit the land but may not reach the hills.
Too much at odds.
Will at last
at long last root and flame be one?
For what do they have in common but the soul?
Bulawayo, place of cattle slaughters
down the wide streets
where an ox-cart could swing round
came prospectors, ranch-owners, seed merchants
now the city swings to an uneven beat
the modern time signature
of over- and under-achievement, linked by vacuum
the lack of hope, and the settlers’ impermeable bubble
still lodged in the town
yet covering all is the Bulawayan music
you hear it at John Martin’s Auctions and the Makokoba street market
in the delightful walks of the Centenary Park and the space and ease of the beer garden
it races up and down Main St.
stretching peacefully along Essexvale Road and circling down and out to Luveve
but the laughter is loudest where the money is least
at Luveve I slept on a thin mat on a stone floor
fourteen in four rooms and an out-shed
in the street market by the nganga stalls
snail-shells porcupine quills tortoise-shell and a hundred herbs
I met the King of Draughts
we played with bottle-tops and his deadly art
hurtled me off the board
at the beer garden I was handed a bucket of pink sorghum beer
and pieces of heart and large colon
I met Matshuma born without legs
mother of five who would arm-walk herself to the shops
and keep her small children in tow
and in the Mzilikazi Art and Craft Workshop
where a Bushman bewilderment of figures took place on the shelves
a multiple murderer known as Gayagusa
added to a personal death toll of 60 or more
a little life
that blood may or may not be laid at the door
of the 5th Brigade that went power-backed and wholesale
at the kin of Lobengula
heartland of the tribe
so far from the threat of Matabele extinction
a flourishing groping thrust to self-propel onward
to triumph in life, to survive.
In a small clearing
between a few trees
I watched the stars.
leant where I lay
each side, not meeting.
cold sweeps of air
could not dislodge me.
I saw the Scorpion,
and now and then
a spark shot from view
and left me dreaming
events back home,
On the night train to Hwange
I sat next to a drunkard, my left heel besieged by ducks.
Opposite me a schoolgirl
fended off a seducer, a religious maniac, but not boredom.
Before we left Bulawayo two fights broke out –
schoolboys acting the buck in front of the girls.
The place was half a bull-ring, half a market:
meat-pies, fruit, beer and sweets were sold up and down.
On the night train to Hwange
Africa slept in the small hours; colourful blankets
welded unlikely shapes into the seats,
heads let go in the tug-of-war; a low snoring
came from the drunkards’ corner (wedged around me).
At last the coach thinned out. I put my feet up
and saw the dawn . . . endured the screams of children
hollering out of the window at the light;
renewed acquaintance with half a dozen lives;
and knew that I had travelled 4th Class 1st Class
on the night train to Hwange.
What I want like doing is
hosing the stuff up
and wallowing it down inside me.
You’ve no idea how good that feels.
When I’ve a full tank
I like to play around a bit,
slosh some between the legs – yo! –
sluice over the back
and up the face – if you can call it that.
I broke my tusk a year ago,
it had a difference of opinion with a tree.
Heigh-ho! I’m an elephant
around middle age
getting sloshed. That’s better.
Now for the final touch:
getting stuck into
some good Kalahari soil
and spraying it all over me.
That’s what we’ve always done.
In the back of beyond where huts are poles and brushwood
a stone building is on its way.
With hammer and chisel in the dry riverbed
they are cutting rough blocks, carting them up with sand
to be met by women carrying water.
Cement is supplied, and windows and roof and door.
What is this miraculous construction
where they work for not a cent’s reward?
To what end is a space carved and covered
where no-one cooks or sleeps? already as high as a man
with windows in place and jutting corner-stones.
In Nekabandama, eighty paces round,
hard rock has a space for the spirit.
It will be the church of St. Peter.
How can I describe waiting?
It is not the bodily position
(standing at the roadside, sitting by a tree)
It is anything but the desperation
(where’s the damn bus why doesn’t the government how do they expect where’s the middle management)
that afflicts the Westerner
It is conversation with the day
It is intimacy with the time between events
that we would squeeze from the system
It is being part of each other.
Squeezing down a bursting toothpaste tube
of people, with their boxes, baskets, bags,
behinds and backs and bosoms, I win space
enough to stand. Hordes of children’s eyes
are on me. I grimly read one side
of a torn newspaper – and then a fat man
bursts from the back of the bus, ploughs up the aisle,
wedges past all and sundry – talks with the driver –
and to my utter disbelief, returns.
“Back to square one,” he puffs. It was the wrong stop.
At last I win a fifth of a seat at the back.
The heat is blinding. I try to imagine my bag
slung on the roof of the bus, and hope it stays there.
I buy boiled eggs and ice-pops through a window.
The bus is a battered serviceable cabin
with signs like ‘In Emergency Kick Panel’.
I talk with a travel agent called Selina.
This was the bus from Hwange to Vic. Falls.
I am flying over cloud at Victoria Falls.
Over these extraordinary stalagmites
the eye-plane skims
as it dives vertically up
to plummet down through boiling fog.
How many variations of the same manoeuvre!
I am left
wrecked in amazement.
That was the sideshow.
To express the full frontal
sky-shattering moment of the Smoke-that-Thunders
would take a pen to dig up rock itself
and bare earth’s crust until the central fire.
Flying again at the speed of light
one sees the shawls of heaven being spun.
A rift in natural order
is celebrated by these singing crazies,
this lovely blind bombardment. As I watch
the valley wakes as if it took the touch
of consciousness itself. I dimly see
the original and transforming power of water.
First the sense of slipping free
as the raft is oar-tugged, tossed a little, towards
the centre of this startling road, Zambezi.
It is as if a marvellous room
included us: the channel of sky,
great walls of cliff in knife-edge echelons,
a clutter of trees and scrub, and high black rock
(up which the water-floor rose in summer)
are open to our passage. Into the rapid
and a wild-horse wave kicks the raft round as a stampede
of hooves splinter in crashing foam.
I am drenched, knocked sideways. Again and again
a surge of white mane and the pummelling.
We ride smack through – with what delight –
and the raft is sliding in the softest calm.
We bale, drift, edge towards the next one.
This was the day, opened by a are sighting
of a Taita falcon darting the cliffs;
ending with two black storks perched in silence.
A herd of monkeys flocked all over the boat
that drove silently to Kariba.
Chattering, lounging, drinking, eating,
they played at being at home. “Did you see that elephant?”
“What about that sunset – fifteen seconds flat!”
Meanwhile the boat drove on.
At night they died on the deck in foetal positions,
video-cameras strewn among them like grave relics . . .
only to rise and arm-wave at the dawn.
And over a new lake’s artificial expanse
that merged with the sky at night and matched at noon,
silk dark, silk light, all silk to put a hand through –
the boat drove on.
Rose grey and blue the sky, dark green the reeds,
elephants browsing, and a vast quelea stream
snaking a river-course into the heavens.
Hippos grunting with intermittent heads,
and hills of Zambia towering opposite
the sandy beach where we made camp (from which
a ten-foot croc slipped as the canoes slid in) –
this is my second evening on the Zambezi.
The full-moon night shone quiet with its own day.
The river spoke its own untroubled word.
Far off the hippo grazed; while from the trees
came muted solitary calls of birds.
More than a prince’s privilege, I thought,
it seemed a person’s natural right and honour
to wake in Africa itself.
the crashing sun-bell broke through trees. We left
unhurriedly, in the clear note of day.
The blade of early morning is laid flat
across the water; and cuts through the air
so that we pause on our pre-breakfast run
to take perception’s sharpness. Water-buck
scoot at the side; a massive buffalo
jerks angrily to face us. We glide by
a saddle-bill stork whose red and white façade
flaps out to gorgeous life.
The surface welcomes
slow canoes . . . and a hippo mock-charges.
We scoot – to pull in by mahogany trees.
Drifting down the gorge having lunch,
five canoes, dry bread and salami
(next to hippos, baboons, under vultures),
I think of five full days since Chirundu.
I have learnt to look at the river,
walk into wildness, sleep among soft yells,
I have learnt to steer in a head-wind,
I have learnt to be in an openness
such as is known to man.
I hear the green wood-dove
My father is dead
my mother is dead
my brother is dead
O no no no no no
as evening comes.
Where is he
Never never never
says the Ndebele
he took part in
the massacre of my people
sniffs the foreign observer
he was involved in the murder of a white farmer
the man’s irresponsible
We need him we need him
says the Shona who is tired of
corruption in the Government, neglect of rural areas,
media manipulation, all the hamfisted blindness
of a one-party system
He is the man
his is the party
to restore the balance
have time for the people
not just foreign visits
engage second gear
and set the country
towards its new phase
But the Ndebele says Never.
No work no work
says the blacksmith plover
No work no work
says the drag-line at Hwange
No work screams the blackboard in the classroom
at 46 faces paying the earth to take O-levels
(one may pass five and all be unemployed)
where are the training schemes
where is the Youth Opportunities Programme
where is the sense that youth exists
as something to be developed
Zimbabwe train your children
not merely to write but to do
not only to learn but to act
but the town-names curse No work
and the dust-road sighs No work
parched of labour, the land
has a parched and boiling future
for what should be the temperate day of its youth.
They slept on rough ground
and dug for water in the sand,
and in their caves they left such proof of Life
as marks the world of Man off from the brute
and gives some meaning to the stars.
The high walls drum with strength, chortle with action
figures wander in the planet of the cave
rhinos white and black, giraffes burnt into the sky
hunters springing, artefacts being used,
a towering human, animals of quick grace
the Bushmen left a world on rock for eyes.
Imaginary snakes traverse it,
it holds the shape of elephant and fly,
and a natural wildness, lit on the cave wall . . .
such fineness of the beasts they were to kill.
I journeyed to Inanke
and Silozwane, two unequalled walks,
and stood among such art as has been equalled
but like Creation, unexcelled.
Back at the spitting kettle of today,
the nation’s smouldering centre-plot – I sniff
with relish and relief the tang outside
the Hot Bread Shop in Kenneth Kaunda St.
Harare is no Etna, spilling havoc,
but still a fine town at the kopje’s foot,
though scarred by modern crime and loss.
On 4th St.
a bar has Chimurenga Soul and beer.
I listen, drink at journey’s end.
the country has are in the faces round me:
their rural kin who do without; their scrabbling
to hold two jobs to clutch the cost of living;
to see it slip beyond the stretch of one job;
to have no life, no job at all.
and politicians bray the abstract context;
but these are men who sit inside.
erupts in here with the full human force:
people – in spite of nothing – having all
in terms of comradeship.
I left the bar
and knew that next day as I left the land
in some important sense I would not leave it:
that I would see Zimbabwe everywhere.
as I go
from your shore
grant that I
may still be
in your arms
that your warmth
come to me.
Shine on me
dusk till noon:
night that glows,
dawn that welds,
day’s rich hall.
I will see
beast and bird;
I will see
far to school;
I will hear
in the truck,
in the train;
I will see
I will see
stand quite near;
I will glide
on your stream;
but will I
keep a touch
of your warmth?
As I fly
from your shore
to where I
have my world,
grant that I
keep that touch
till I die.