I once lived on a farm with cats, dogs, horses, cows, chickens and rabbits. I loved sadza and carrying my doll on my back with an old towel. I hated horse riding. My best friend gave me the biggest shock when she turned up to our nursery school nativity play with her afro hair unleashed from its tight braids for the first time. Those are the basic facts I know about my life in Bulawayo. The rest is just a dreamlike montage of colours, smells, sounds and distorted images of faces and places that can’t quite connect anymore. These are the memories of a child.
The hot stone pavement warmed my stomach as the sun beat steadily on my back. Dragonflies buzzed harmlessly over the surface of the sky-blue pool. Occasionally my sister would splash me with needles of cold water, not purposefully, but rather unconsciously part of her endless games. She could swim for hours, never tiring of the initial thrill from diving in and cooling off like I did.
Our thatched roof house stood grand and white in the midst of arid African bush. A dusty red dirt road lead to a large stable block. I wasn’t allowed down there on my own, it was gated and fenced off. I had plenty to explore in our expansive garden with giant trees and islands of native scrub and white daisies.
Nana and Papa also had a wonderful garden of green canopies, colourful flowerbeds, evergreen lawns, tidy hedges and, somewhere in the middle, a leafy vine wrapped itself neatly around a steel arbor. Papa loved his garden. They didn’t have a pool, they had a green swing. It was as tall as the trees and swung as high as the house. Sometimes I would lie flat on the ground and my sister would swing over me – back and forth – until we could hear Nana’s loud gasps and bellowing pleads for us to stop trying to kill each other.
Town was a grid of square blocks with wide tarred roads dissected by winged lampposts. Beautiful stone, brick and concrete houses with lush gardens were enclosed by towering walls with electric gates. I liked going to the TM supermarket; it was new and clean and they stocked chewing gum at the check-outs where it was easy to smuggle into Mom’s shopping. Sometimes we’d all go for lunch at the nearby Brass Monkey which was also shiny and new. A carpark stretched across the two places in a big concrete slab, except for the odd sapling. Some places weren’t quite as clean and new. Some places felt dirty and they smelled dirty. When we parked in town people would often come up to our windows with their hands cupped in front of them. Our Jack Russel didn’t like them doing that, he’d growl and bear his teeth until they went away. The car doors were always locked.
Road trips to Johannesburg and Cape Town were the ultimate exotic getaway as they offered world class shopping and hot sandy beaches, respectively. Tracy Chapman and The Corrs were on repeat. These trips were somewhat spoiled by the unavoidable and tedious exercise of crossing the borders. They were stinking hot and reeked of sweat and old passports. Hours were lost in these grimy places. The windy road home took day and night before the dotted lights of Bulawayo twinkled on the horizon in a slowly expanding cluster. “There, can you see those lights?” Dad would ask. “Nearly home now,” Mom would say.
Over sixteen years have passed since I last saw the lights of Bulawayo as a seven-year-old child. Today, the city sleeps in darkness. Returning to Zimbabwe as a young adult felt like visiting a past life; somewhere both strangely familiar and completely foreign. I arrived early evening in early October. The first thing that struck me was the heat; dry and still. The second thing I noticed was my skin; it was very white. The third thing I saw made me smile; the rich red soil beneath my shoes. It felt good to be home.
We drove from Harare down to Bulawayo. The first thing I noticed was the roads were awful! Poorly levelled, littered with potholes and occasionally used by stray cattle, donkeys and goats. I asked what the speed limit was as we careened down the highway and my head hit the car roof over another bump. “Twenty bucks,” was the reply. We arrived in Bulawayo just before nightfall, but we were not greeted by twinkling lights. The following day I realised this was because many lampposts no longer had a lamp on them and many houses were unoccupied.
The town centre remained largely unchanged, there was the familiar Edgars, Haddon and Sly, and Jairos Jiri exactly where they’d always been in exactly the same state of grime. The age-old market outside City Hall was still selling traditional wood carvings, weavings, paintings and flowers, although I appeared to be their rare observer. One by one the craftsmen tried to lure me over to their stalls with friendly greetings and toothy grins. They’d ask me where I was from and I’d proudly respond, “Bulawayo!” To which they’d laugh and say, “No, where have you come from?” My Kiwi accent and Primark clothes were glaring betrayals. Feeling like a bloody tourist in my hometown, I quickly scuttled away from the collection of curios.
When we drove to a supermarket to forage for cooking oil (in very short supply), someone had to point out to me that I was in the carpark of TM and the former Brass Monkey. Lined with rows of vegetation we even managed to find a shady spot in the once barren carpark. There was no chewing gum at the check-out. There was no cooking oil either.
I asked if we could drive by my Nana and Papa’s old place and gave the address. The house number was unmistakeable but the property was unrecognizable. The house was tired and rundown and the garden had disappeared. Its most prominent feature was a red-stained white wall where the rain had lifted dust from the burnt lawn below. I looked at the house number again and tried to find something that resonated with the address. Then I saw it. The green swing hung lonely and small. So much smaller than I remembered. The steel arbor stood there in the middle with a few dead vines still clinging on. I blinked away tears as we drove towards the other place I once knew; my old house.
The main entrance had been fenced off and we had to approach the property from the side entrance by the stables. My stomach lurched as I caught a glimpse of the thatched roof behind the overgrown garden. The distinctive peaks of our balconies were there but they did not have the grandeur I remembered, instead they almost had a cottage-like appearance. It puzzled me how close together everything was – the house, the compound, the stables, the road. The stable block looked half the size. I spied the feed room door and was tempted to go inside and find the bins of horse cubes, but I knew they probably weren’t there. Nor were there any horses, or cats, or dogs, or cows, or chickens, or rabbits. There wasn’t a single soul from before.
I began to wonder whether my real childhood home was the one in front of me or the one that exists in my childhood memory. This one showed little resemblance and appeared even more distorted than the one I remembered. This was not the place I knew and loved, it was an empty place where I was just a stranger. My old home was not here, it was there in those flashbacks of colours, sounds, smells and images. It’s there in those hazy memories of lazy afternoons by the pool.