Thursday, 28 February 2013

An excerpt from

Two war orphans and a young elephant forge a bond
transcends time, place and possibility

‘In this great future you can’t forget your past’
- Bob Marley

She will remember the intimate detail of these final moments until the end.
  Long grass whispering all about in the dark.
  Her mother’s solid presence.
  The voice of the herd, rumbling like distant thunder.
  The scent of dew on perpetually thirsty earth.
  It is that most quiet time between the song of cicada and bird, the deferential pause before the world's final roll to rebirth.
  It is like any other instant before the dawn in the thousand dawns she has seen.
  Yet something sinister slides beneath the surface of her consciousness. Some dreadful sense of impending change.
  The depth of this premonition is inexplicable, given the dearth of dramatic experience in her young life.
  Her mother does not feel it, nor do the others.
  Grey seeps into the obsidian air. Now their great, still forms are darker than the night, ink splashed on charcoal.
  The air hums and her mind glimpses a dragonfly darting by.
  The first crack brings no more alarm than might the snapping of a branch; a simple sound of the wilderness.
  But they stir. They raise their trunks and test the air.
  It seems they have beckoned to death, for that is what now comes with no more hesitation.
  Hot lead smashes through hide and flesh, opening vein, shattering bone. The ka-ka-ka-ka-cracking is a growing wall of sound met with screams of sudden pain and disbelief and outrage.
  Her mother is among the first to fall. She would never have left her side but for the mind-bending agony as a fiery ember bores into her shoulder; it is like some living thing, some ferocious beast plunging a single, white-hot talon into her, and she spins, lashing out impotently at the supernatural aggressor.
  The second bullet hits her in the side of her head and all light is snapped out.
  She stumbles against a flailing mound, knows even in this unseeing nightmare that it is the sister of her mother, and no less than her mother, suckled, comforted, protected, loved equally by her.   The stench of hot blood is intoxicating, she staggers and her front knees buckle, she is down.
  They lie together, facing each other, their trunks touch and entwine. As the matriarch shudders and breathes her last, the young cow feels an uninvited, unwanted surge of strength. She lumbers to her feet and begins to walk, head down, in no particular direction. She does not flee, she simply keeps on moving. The physical pain is now as nothing. Whatever will be, will be. There is no self purpose, no will of her own.
  But the code for survival is imprinted on every fibre of her being, activated by a dying breath and by the memory of all embracing love and the coming of this new dawn against all odds.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Sidney Malunga

Sidney laughs and the whole world laughs with him – it’s infectious, a deep rumble, slow and satisfying.
   He’s doing it to reassure those in the car with him, after announcing before we got in that his life has been threatened again.
   “These people,” he grins, “must realise that I am not afraid of death – it’s debt that kills me.”
   His driver, Jacob*, clicks his tongue in mock disgust and chuckles too. He tells me afterwards that if he is to die with anyone, he can’t think of a better person than Mr Sidney Malunga, MP.
   Mervyn isn’t so sure – he sits beside me in the back of the government issue sedan, nervously fidgeting with his camera but managing to raise a comic-shock eyebrow at me. I scan the way ahead and glance over my shoulder but we’re alone on this road to McDonald Bricks, 15 miles outside Bulawayo.
   We are en route to the massive kilns to get a story for the next edition of The Radar Link, monthly house journal of the Radar Group. Sidney, a sitting ZANU-PF Member of Parliament, is also contracted to manage Radar’s public relations.
   To understand why a senior official in the all powerful ruling party of Zimbabwe should be in the shadow of the assassin, some context is necessary.
   When Zimbabwe gained independence on April 18, 1980, two parties came to democratic prominence. These were the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe and, put in very simple terms, largely supported by the dominant Shona tribe; and the Patriotic Front – Zimbabwe African People’s Union (PF-ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo and representing the Ndebele people, the indigenous minority in the southern part of the country, Matabeleland. At this point, Sidney Malunga was Chief Whip for the latter, PF-ZAPU. 
   These were the political wings of ZIPRA and ZANLA respectively, liberation armies that presented an uneasy but united front in the protracted guerrilla war against the forces of Ian Douglas Smith’s Rhodesian regime. But the end of that war was not to usher in the era of peace and prosperity promised at Bob Marley’s Independence Day concert in Harare. Instead, it would see more blood shed than could be soaked up even by the thirsty soil of Matabeleland – the part of the country from which Sidney’s people hail.
   When ZANU swept to power with a landslide victory at the polls, ZIPRA combatants saw any promise of a share in the spoils of war snatched away from them. Instead, they faced an uncertain future under the jackboot of their long-time tribal rivals. Those not yet tired of killing retrieved their AK-47s, bazookas and grenades from hidden caches and launched an ill-conceived offensive.
   One of Mugabe’s maiden acts as the first democratically elected Prime Minister (soon to be President), was to welcome to Zimbabwe his generous backers, the leadership of the Democratic Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
   A defeated Joshua Nkomo had the misfortune of support from the Soviet Union – a power already on the wane and no longer a match for the calculated savagery of Mugabe’s pals. The North Koreans set about training a specialist unit, Five Brigade, to excise the resistance, roots and all. The sudden agony they brought to Matabeleland became known as the Gukurahundi campaign – literally ‘the rains that wash away the chaff’. Some chose to term it ‘the winds that burn’.
   They swept through village after village, torturing, amputating, raping, murdering children, women and men.  Official estimates put the figure at 25,000 dead. The real figure may be twice this.  Other than those buried in mass graves, thousands of bodies were cast into disused mine shafts and have never been recovered.
   PF-ZAPU and its military wing conceded total subordination to the ‘Jongwe’, the proud crowing rooster symbol of ZANU. Mugabe magnanimously offered to ‘merge’ the two parties – in reality, the rooster was swallowing the bull, the symbol of Nkomo’s party. The new party name was to be… ZANU-PF. Zimbabweans joked wryly that Mugabe’s claim of a merger was a cock and bull story.
   During the genocide years, Sidney Malunga was imprisoned, tortured and put on trial for treason. He was finally acquitted, in time to see his party absorbed by the ‘new’ ZANU-PF. He could have walked away, but instead he walked into a hostile parliament and took his seat. He knew that the honourable members to the left and to the right of him had sanctioned breathtaking acts of barbarism on his people. Many rubbed it in his face – he told me that one regularly spoke of ‘the cockroaches’ when he approached – a reference to the systematic dehumanisation of the Ndebele people before and during the genocide. Far easier for young soldiers to stomach the atrocities if they perceived their victims as vermin.
   But Sidney did not surrender his dignity, in spite of the clear and present danger. The smell of cordite and blood was still fresh on both sides, victor and vanquished. Even after the ‘ceasefire’, Mugabe’s minions had found an ingenious way to quietly terminate high ranking former members of the defunct PF-ZAPU. Their cars would be involved in high speed head-on collisions with armoured vehicles or freight trucks; the number of such ‘unfortunate accidents’ was mounting. Sidney’s profile fit the bill for such an end, and he had received less than veiled threats and tip-offs of an imminent attempt on his life.
   Sidney was loved by his people. He never backed down, and continued to ask hard questions in and out of parliament.  No-one could or would accuse him of being a ‘sell-out’. When Sidney walked through the streets, he stopped for anyone, any colour, gender, age, social standing; I watched him commiserate with an elderly white woman who had just lost her husband, and equally engage with a dusty street child. He always had a ready smile and easy manner, never in so much of a hurry that he wouldn’t stop and listen.
   He told me: “Be true to yourself first, and you cannot but be true to others. If you witness a wrong, never avert your eyes. Remember what you have seen and keep it vivid in your mind. Refuse to be silenced. Refuse, until there is some justice, or until you are dead.”
   Sidney and his driver died in mysterious circumstances in 1994 – Jacob* reportedly swerved for ‘a black dog’ and slammed into a lamp post. Black dog was to become a euphemism for army truck.
   I joined thousands of mourners at a packed White City Stadium service. Sidney had stipulated in his will that, no matter what condition his body was in, he must have an open coffin. For years afterwards I was sorry that I did not avert my eyes. But now I understand – it’s just as he said. The more vivid the memory of a wrong, the more it will keep tugging, tugging, until you do something about it.
   Lala ngokuthula, Mr Malunga.
(* ‘Jacob’: not real name)
There may be some inaccuracies in this draft post due to limited information and the passage of time; privately communicated corrections – and public validation – gratefully accepted.