a PechaKucha in prose
You are still in the doldrums, working your way towards the American dream. Months later and you haven’t made much progress in the way of an airfare. Time is slipping away, threading its way through your fingers. Once every year you make your way to Throgmorton House, near the corner of Julius Nyerere Way and Samora Machel Avenue. You want to believe that were this city a body, where these two streets meet would be something vital in the way of an organ, something in the order of lungs, the heart and its four chambers. Samora Machel is where the courts and government administrative buildings are located. The large commercial banks are headquartered here, too, as is the Central Bank of Zimbabwe.
Once every year you come to this office in Throgmorton House to certify again that you are your mother’s child. You sit across from the smiling gentleman and confirm that, Yes, you are still alive, that you are still in school. This way your mother’s pension fund can keep meeting the benefits due you.
Every two months the money is deposited for you into an account. It is a small pension, and with the rising inflation, more or less negligible; the money hardly carries you through the month. It won’t make a dent towards your airfare, but here you are in this ill-lit office, imagining your mother would want you here in this seat, attentive to her labors, appreciative of the efforts she made to look after you even in her death.
It is winter and the wind wrings right through your safari pants, leaving things icy under there. How are you to survive this winter, you wonder? But your ear is drifting off, away to some deserted place in your mind where for hours you wander away into each night. Return, you tell yourself, come back here. And here you are in the Harare crowd, floating along with the squad—thirteen, fourteen, maybe fifteen of you. Once in a while a large section of the squad converges on the city. It is one of those occasions, today. Even the crew with the temporary jobs has managed to show up: the temporary teachers, grocery packers and shop floor assistants. These are the lucky few of you: the ones who maybe knew connected people well enough to be hooked up with jobs. It’s an event to see them. You are heading to what you all call a buns party. It’s an irregular thing, but when it happens it happens at lunch hour, in Africa Unity Square. On any given day, those of you who can pool together whatever money you have and buy buns for everyone. They are the cheapest filling things in the city, and for you a feast. The excitement hangs in the air and gets you high on being alive. It has been months since you all hung out together like this, a squad of mostly orphans marauding the city. The word that comes to your mind is swarm. A swarm of orphans seizing the city. In truth, however, it’s simply a small group of teenagers plowing through. You share the precarious communion of home, the hairy hand of poverty lingering on each of your shoulders.
You are waiting for The Girl You Will Marry. Unlike every other baggy-clothed, boot-wearing teenager in Harare, the two of you are keen not to meet at Ximex Mall. It’s too peopled down there, she says over the telephone, even though you never suggested meeting there in the first place. Rule Number One, your girl cousins warned: Never ask to meet a decent girl at Ximex Mall. So you always meet her here, at Eastgate Shopping Mall.
You wait for her outside Edgar’s Clothing Store, just there by that dark semi-circle brick bench nearest to Second Street, the one where the baton-wielding security guards hiss at you if you so much as bend your ass to sit on it. It’s as though the bench is just there to get your behind interested, just to let your imagination stretch, seize you into a fantasy that these guards won’t let you attain. This must be the Holy Grail for behinds. In any case, you never think of sitting down anyway. Something about that idea strikes you as feeble, like it’s a brave thing to stand by Edgar’s, leaning against the wall or something, your knee bending with cool and pressing one foot into it, shifting your weight from time to time.
She still makes you nervous—The Girl You Will Marry—how she seems to arrive out of the blue without a sound to her feet. You usually go about town doing chores together, mostly something about her hair—usually buying it. Once in a while you take her to a few of your favorite bookstores and show her the books you will buy once you come into money. Light years from now, but this you hold to be true.
But it’s been an hour and she still hasn’t shown up. Even by her standards this is no good. You decide to wait a while longer anyway—the winter sun now beating so hard it makes your fingers itch. Over the next hour or so, you bark at her pretty face and cuss her out. You storm away into the city, breaking off everything to do with her. You play her lips over and over again in your head, parting her mouth to hear her broken voice again. It is frayed at the seams and quiet with apologies. Then you come down and here you are standing there, panicking that if you so much as walk away she will arrive a minute later and your absence would kill her. You tell yourself this for another half hour, but a while later the weight of the sky has collapsed on you, and your knees are beginning to ache in a new way. Maybe it’s because you are always so broke, you tell yourself. Maybe it’s being an orphan that renders you forgettable. It’s not without basis; it explains much of your extended family’s silences with you. But soon you remember yourself again, step out of that wheel and thread your way into Harare’s thick crowds.
Weekends are the hardest. By the time you are done with your chores it’s nearly too late to find any office to raid, any place to drop in on with your papers and make an impression. So you stay in the neighborhood watching the hours launch themselves at you, aggravatingly splendid with sloth and sunshine.
In the first few weeks of working the city such days were a welcome relief. They were pockets of time when something like rest could occur. How you loved taking it easy back then, walking over to your boy General Number One’s house an hour away. How the two of you burnt through the hours seated on that drain on his street, offering each other room in the other’s fantasy—your broke selves deciding why this one type of car was not worth a tenth of the fortune you were going to make once your life had taken off.
But that was a while ago, back when your calves hadn’t accumulated the sort of mileage that has left them looking something like Mike Tyson’s biceps. Still, you feel it in your bones that you are wasting time; that you could be out there doing something about your life, something to make it better.
There is a rumor going around that a notoriously lively war veteran has moved into the neighborhood. The joke is that property prices in the area will plummet now that he has moved in. And seeing that the local Member of Parliament lives in the same locale, who knows how things are going to work out between the two of them—what with war vets threatening to take over white-owned commercial farms, and with your local Member of Parliament being all progressive and white. Naturally, assumptions of mutual dislike are circulated.
You catch fragments of this conversation while seated on the edge of things. An hour and a half later, you are seated in the garden of an elderly white lady’s home. This is the tail’s end of an era: when you can visit any Zimbabwean anywhere, at anytime of the day, and expect all the homage to our Anglicism in a respectable cup of tea. This is before the hunger years, before the nation’s descent into poor billionaires.
The ATM card is still in your mother’s name. While she has been deceased for a few years, in the banking sector your mother is a living, breathing, and viable thing. Once every two months a deposit is made into her account. Some activity is witnessed.
You make sure to keep her bank account open, making certain to hold a minimum balance even though the bank does not yet require one to be held. While you’re not a seasoned citizen of this city yet, you know enough of Harare’s troubled romance with peripeteia—how the rules of engagement change fast and sudden. A hair moves an inch to the left on the head of a chief and the earth of your dreams is shattered. That is Harare for you. And so you leave a steady one hundred dollars in her account. Just a buffer, you tell yourself.
While she lived, your mother banked with the Central African Building Society, CABS. On the days you went to withdraw your mother’s salary on her behalf—to your younger self—CABS meant casually skipping the freakishly long queues on the days the civil service was paid because a distant cousin of yours was a teller at that branch. How the queue meandered about the banking hall before pooling out onto the streets before going on for a fine portion of the block. But your cousin has since vanished into the machinery of the times. And so here you are now, standing in line all dignified, waiting your turn.
It has never been a lot of money, hardly enough now to purchase a decent shirt. But you wait in line anyway. This is your mother’s sweat, you remind yourself; she deserves to have you spend it.
This is the peak era of the long illness. The statistics are something bone-chilling, but the visuals leave you aghast. Much of the city walks about skeletal, beads of sweat tumbling down temples that have sunk in. The hair is generally tender—softens like a baby’s and falls out. And because at times the illness burns the lips into a bright pink, Harare christens the illness “eating polony.” That, or “being attacked by thieves.” You say it this way: This guy isn’t looking too good; he is being attacked by thieves: soon he will leave us.
What the textbooks, magazines, television, radio, and non-governmental organizations want you to believe is that you cannot tell who has the illness. What they are trying to say, your eyes gather, is what Harare is teaching you: that you cannot always tell, but often enough you can.
This is before the magic of PEPFAR; before, with one signature, George W. Bush revolutionizes a continent.
This is the tide; swim on across, on to the stranger shores.
Here is a setting. It is after hours in an office building in Harare, a neat one; one from the Nineties, back when Harare knew what it wanted to make of itself.
The man behind the desk is one of your fathers. He has a daughter your age, which admittedly makes him old enough to be your father. A few years ago he lost his wife to a terminal illness, not the one with an unmentionable name, no, but an equally cruel and drawn-out one. Because this is Harare, people find it important to distinguish one malady from another; it keeps off the stigma of the unmentionable one, alien to their loved ones.
But back to this father of yours.
His proximity to death, you want to believe, has made him more sensitive to you—although, too, he seems genuinely baffled at how available he is to you—a confusion you sincerely share. It’s not the financial assistance you want from him, no; there would be something crass about that. What you have from him is more valuable than money: this is the only adult ear you have in Harare. Or at least you feel this way.
The night you came to see him tired, penniless, and dejected, he said you were at a point that needed to be reached. This, he said, was the point of no turning back.
You are wondering if The Girl You Will Marry has returned from her holiday. When you have called her number, the phone rings and rings but no one seems to be home. It could have been the rains again; last time didn’t they tear down telephone networks in whole neighborhoods? But it’s been two or more months since she’s been gone, and you have had no word. Not that there would be a way to get word to you about anything—you have no telephone number to be reached at and the post is erratic. The closest it gets is your cousin’s cell phone. But this is the era when cell phones are notoriously guarded; they are rare and delicate contraptions on this continent, so much that you feel uneasy about giving out your cousin’s number. You haven’t earned the prestige of giving out a cell number, you decide. Besides, come to think of it, it’s not something you’ve been invited to do anyway. So you keep trying The Girl You Will Marry’s number at the public phone booth, an hour’s walk away. You try it again every few days when you are in the city, sorting out your affairs, placing calls in the dingiest of Harare’s flourishing, winding stairs backroom phone shops. You try it out on the mornings you cross the city to the industrial district near Southerton while waiting to pick up chicken feed for your cousin’s chickens. And afterwards, you try the number again at your friend General Number Two’s house, after his mother leaves for work and no one is watching you. It’s something like dipping your tongue over and over again into a wet vacant gum, right there, where the tooth has fallen out of. You are getting obsessed, you tell yourself. But it’s not something you can talk about—this ache whirling within you—it’s not something you know yet how to say.
The man on the other side of the table is all thunder and no rain. But oh how dark those clouds are; how tremendous that longing for rain in you. For a while, you drop in on him with Comfort. But after a while that somehow seizes, and you each come in to see him alone.
It’s long conversations the two of you are increasingly having. They never seem to lead anywhere, but you never know with these wealthy people. So you listen while he talks at length and at some distance from the point. His conversation of choice is how he ended up on the other side of this prefabricated wooden desk, on the highest floor in this building. Your conversation of choice is this air ticket you are searching for, and the role you have carved out for him in it. How you think he fits that hole like a peg. But the gravity of that part he simply does not seem to hear. Yet when you mention your interest in creative writing, his ears tweak once again and he launches mournfully into his previous career, in the newspaper business. It was the happiest time of my professional life, he says, tucking the side of his belly back into his pants. But I was so broke, my brother, I could only dream in black and white, he adds before exploding into a violent laugh.
But as the days go by, the talk heads up its own grim alleyways, dark angular hallways and trap doors at every corner, each turn carrying Comfort’s name. And in this way, you know it’s a whole other education he is interested in giving her.
You prefer to use the stipend from your mother’s pension in con- cretely visible ways. Things you can touch, feel; things you can hold and remember into.
You wonder about this for weeks at a time. What shall you buy? What shall you get for yourself that will keep your mother close, fending for you? Here are Harare’s shop window displays, offering their advice. This is a shirt, canvas and durable. This is a backpack, both practical and fashionable—don’t you want to be practical and fashionable?
Once, you bought two pairs of khaki pants, doubling the number of trousers you owned. Elastic and loose at the waist, you believed the way the drawstrings hung could catch on and be fashionable.
Once, on your way back to boarding school, you purchased groceries for yourself, hoping they would last the term.
No, the stipend is neither a burden nor something that hollows your spirits out. But it is something that quiets you down on the inside, tones down the internal volume to things, turning everything mute. All sound leaves the city; street chatter continues without echo; cars break sudden and soundless; the streets float along in the quiet sunshine. All you can hear is the large pulse in your ears, the thumping heart in your chest.
You are allowing your mother to still clothe and feed you; you are allowing her to still care.
Here is Mike. You are in a dingy office near Market Square, trying again to convince him that he should give you a job selling second-hand tires imported from Japan. It’s not a glamorous position, you know, but you know potential when you see it. Besides, the job will earn you a little money to sort out your affairs, even go on dates.
You have the whole thing figured out in a solid business plan. You will specialize in supplying tires to heavy vehicles, particularly buses and eighteen-wheelers. The wheels on those things cost a small fortune, and the commission is something that spells a tidy profit for you. Already you have gone deep into Highfield to consult with a qualified expert: your uncle who works as a bus conductor for a seasoned company. He has been in the industry at least a decade and between the two of you this Mike thing can get you into a tidy place. I can get my white man to purchase at least six of these right away, he has said.
You are dreaming big. At this rate, you could supply all of Willowvale Road with used bus tires from Japan.
If only Mike could actually get you started.
But Mike is once again on the phone, talking to a shark his size.
You met him months ago at a strange house party somewhere in Harare, one of those old leafy suburbs where, like most places you go with your girl cousins, every straight male was trying to get face time with them—and this being Harare, hoping for more. That night your cousins, six astonishingly gorgeous women, had enjoyed keeping the room confused, because what drunk man in Harare can tell two women with legs apart. In all fairness, though, seeing that they are of the same blood, your cousins do vaguely look alike. Something that always turns much of the male attention to you: men seek your help to tell them apart, get in a good word. Bribes are offered, lofty dreams promised. But months after the party, your cousins had refused to play ball, something Mike really should have seen coming. But still you are tracking him all over the city, hoping to get this job he promised you, selling used car tires from Japan. Later, you will learn he hadn’t even ordered them. But we are not there yet.
There is a river. There is a river inside you. You understand it these days to be running at low tide. In it you can feel the finest of its particles, the smallest of its quiet sediments coming down to rest on the riverbed.
You feel this most keenly at night, gazing at the television set. It feels as though you are seldom present in the room you are sitting in. For stretches at a time, you feel yourself to be out of your body in a way. The word that comes to mind is absent. You are often absent. And when you return, routinely it startles you to notice the physical spaces outside your own head, the words coming out of the television set, a ticking clock, the darkness outside. You are under siege; it is time to take care, call on your Generals and resuscitate.
You make your way to Mount Pleasant the following morning in search of General Number One. General Number One has the best-laid strategies. You share a mutual reverence for nurses, the profession of your mothers. Both of you are fatherless. And in matters such as these you want to believe General Number One understands you best. Two years ago, the two of you made a pact never to feel sorry for each other, regardless of the situation. He howls mercilessly when you are clumsy in public, which is often. Of course you were careful to distinguish sympathy from pity.
You walk up the length of the avenue General One lives on, admiring the large roofs and grand windows peaking from behind the trees and durawalls. In the fantasy in which you have already left the country and returned with means, this is the neighborhood you have moved into. There, your can hear your children laughing goldenly behind a garden wall, squealing into a kiddy pool. There you go again, sinking into your mind.
In such a way, the hour-long walk passes. You are at his gate now hammering it with a rock without reply. It’s a beautiful house but ill-kept; houses are such expensive things to maintain in such neighborhoods. General One’s family, like yours, is poor. But finally here is the gardener, making an appearance. I was in the back—working on something, he says. And before you ask, he announces that nobody is home. General Number One is in Bulawayo, the gardener adds. He went to arrange his things for university.
You nod and watch yourself walk away, remembering the pride on the gardener’s face when he said “university,” as though it were he who had been accepted. It is time already for this sort of thing; everybody taking to post-high school plans. How the months have shuffled on by. You accept to yourself that if General Number One has gone off to Bulawayo, it follows, too, that General Number Two is in Bulawayo: they intend to attend the same university program.
You are back in the city, walking about the crowded streets aimlessly, making mental notes of all the foods you will eat once the money comes your way. You are trying to hold on to the hem of something quietly departing from inside of you. Much of it has already gone. But the small of your fingers, it seems, still clutches on to the feel of something.
You are trying to keep from drowning.
One Monday morning you do your rounds at the banks. You have concrete news from one of them, a firm no. We help group homes and institutions, the letter says, not single individuals like in your case.
It is true.
On the other side of the desk the bank official is repeating the letter to you. There is nothing to dispute. You accept this and make your way out to the street, taking the letter with you like you always do. You fold it carefully and slip it into the folder full of your papers, the one you carry under your arm everywhere.
You are back out in the cold sunshine of Harare’s morning streets, dashing across the road back to the Center on Nelson Mandela Avenue. You could be more crushed, but it’s nothing to dwell on. Harare is not that sort of place, you are learning, and neither is this the season. It’s just that you had become really hopeful of this one; you were counting on things working out with them. After all, it is one of the biggest banks in Zimbabwe. Once it had seemed impenetrable, too bureaucratic to draft a reply to mortals like you. But with perseverance you had made human contact. This, however, is how the city goes.
But while sitting on the cold stairs you go over the letter again, and something seizes you. The way you picture it is a bodiless black hand that seizes your shirtfront. What if you refused all this, and told them that this would not do? What if you took their letter back to their offices and spelt it out to them—that it was nonsense? Perhaps in a more contained language, yes, but nonsense all the same? What if?
Here you are, back on your feet again, heading back to the bank, the wind like a saw, cutting through your bones.
You will use the bank’s entrance once, promise yourself not to leave without coming to an agreement.
You are dreaming of The Girl You Will Marry, again.
Once, at school, you convince your friend Vaida Amos to do a dirty job for you. You induce her to sneak into The Girl You Will Marry’s room one morning while she is away in the shower. You have some flowers and a short note you wish to have left in her open bed, there between her sheets.
You had been in the city trying to sort out your affairs. Afterwards you had made your way to a florist’s shop at Chisipite. Because you were to marry her, the flower vendors on the streets would not do. Never buy a decent girl street flowers, your girl cousins have warned. And so the florist shop it was.
You chose the flowers yourself, carefully, eager not to come off too strong. Then you went and withdrew some money from your mother’s account and paid the florist yourself. When the silences began to hem you in, you reminded yourself it was okay.
The note says everything you wish it to say. You are too broke anyway to regularly take a girl out. It’s not a meal and a movie, but this once, though, you too are alive.
You never know when something truly begins.
For a while there you and Connie were up to something.
It first involved soft and carefully fragranced sheets of decorated writing pads saved for and purchased mainly from Reflections Stationery store, fancy Harare pharmacies, and equally fancy department stores—places with elevators that still had a doorman. But that was before each of you ran out of your own supply and raided your friends’ reserves, until they too began avoiding both of you altogether and left you facing beige and green-lined guava pages from ordinary exercise books, government-issued things that smelled vaguely of toxic chemicals, and something else that your nostrils wanted to be cow manure.
You wrote reams of letters to each other, including over the holidays, which was unusual even for single-sex high school kids—sixteen-, eighteen-, twenty-page things—because who had money to call Harare long distance from a telephone booth?
It’s unclear what it is you were exchanging, but the pulse of the subtext must have involved beating hearts. And in the year your mother died, Connie wept over the phone and comforted you, rallying condolence letters and cards your way.
Like all good things, that too came to an end somehow.
You had a good friend in Connie.
Which explains why two years later, you are in a loud and grimy phone shop dialing her number. You are careful not to lean against anything: there are vicious nails in the walls waiting to hack into your clothes and those walls could give you something infectious. There is a river in you, and you are trying to keep from drowning. Stay there, she says. I’m already showered, and I will be on my way to you.
You are half an hour from her home, a suburb on the outskirts of the city. Connie is usually late to things, but in half an hour here she is, the girl stunning like she just walked out of a Pacesetter novel. You will walk about the city for a while, pick up some food for her mother. She will take you home to her. And while Connie disappears into their house, you will pour your heart out to her mother. She listens to you while ironing her way through a heap of laundry. You are in the spare bedroom alone with her, an adult all ears for you. Things will be well my child, she says.
And for a while longer you can breathe.
This is the Meikles Hotel. You do not know it yet but you are about to be released. You are in a private dining room, and it looks everything a private five-star hotel dining room should. The air just feels different. Because the rich do it differently, you tell yourself. You do not realize it yet, but that is because of the air conditioning. Nothing too complicated.
You are here with some of the gang, Cato included. You are here with the men and women who have sponsored you thus far—purchased your air tickets, paid for your medicals, visas, and such. Your lot is not done yet, but you have the lady from the bank here, the one whose office you returned to that morning and wouldn’t leave. In the room are some of the country’s most influential people. There sits the country’s most gifted eye surgeon, across from you. Here is a famously shadowy indigenous banker, part of the country’s nouveau riche. He sits tall and polished in his chair, and speaks cleanly bathed English that titillates the ear. He is speaking to a few diplomats who are here, too. You are guessing it is something to do with money. And over there is the lawyer of astonishing gifts. He is a former senator and now serves as chairman of the wealthiest bank in the country. He sits a decent way behind his portly stomach, his bald head shining like a miracle. His eyes closed. And there is Cato, smiling beside him.
Cato looks easy in his suit. It fits him as though it were tailored just for his frame. You are wearing your leaver’s party outfit, complete with the silver satin shirt. It’s more of eveningwear, but here you are, in sparkling form at noon.
There is a going away party for the squad: someone important from the embassy is hosting all of you at their home in Highlands.
This is you, nearly all in black. You are wearing your favorite shirt, the one you seldom wear because you like it best and because one of your girl cousins sent it to you from England.
It is unclear where you found the black jeans you are floating in, but there you are in them. It could have been a pair you borrowed from your other cousin, but seeing the jeans are so baggy you could fit a horse and its stable into them, something tells you no. Your cousin is smaller than this. She is a lady of the tight jeans variety; when you have borrowed hers, you’ve struggled your way into them, sucking your tummy in as though you were dueling with a girdle. But still when it mattered, you have wriggled into them and boiled everything down there for hours. This pair in comparison, you could sail away in.
You are holding hands in a circle with the squad. You are all humoring the kids, standing in the circle with them. Nursery rhymes must be involved. To your left is your friend Comfort, who got a partial scholarship to a college in Michigan and so won’t be going anywhere. This is before Comfort finds her own way.
There, across from you, is your future best friend. You do not know it yet but the years to come have declared your fates sealed. You are to soldier on, side by side. After worryingly long nights full of drink and dirty dancing, you will collapse into the same bed, hold each other and ache, weeping about your broken hearts, weeping for the ghosts of those who have gone before you.
On a Sunday morning you catch a kombi and head out deep into Mbare, watching the perfect world and its grime slide past the cold window weeping with your breath. Crammed market stalls sit squat on either shoulder of the road. They sell everything from pesticides to tomatoes and terrifyingly bright Zion church garments. You watch in the sliding sky plastic litter fly in the dust storm like fashionable kites, the children scampering behind it and yowling.
It’s Cato’s last Sunday. Later this week he heads out. Because of the casual magic that comes with being him, Cato somehow closed the hole in his scholarship. It’s such a good award it came with an air ticket attached to it—maybe even some pocket money for when he gets there.
You sit outside in the small yard, chatting to his mother while he gets ready in their room. It’s 10 a.m. and there is nothing like warmth radiating from that golden thing in the sky. It’s understated, but there’s no mistaking the bright flash you are catching in his mother’s voice. But like all good mothers, she is wholeheartedly skeptical about this whole America thing working out. And then you are both out; Cato impatient to get to the stadium. It’s a national holiday today, so the game is free, which is the only way the two of you are going. It’s the defense forces cup final, and wouldn’t you know it, the same two army teams that play each other every year are meeting in the final again.
You like this thing about the hours with Cato: their lack of agony. They slide by liberated from pity. They are not feather-light things exactly, but with Cato you can carry their weight like that of your own feet. What’s that saying? An elephant’s horns are never too heavy for it to carry.
It’s wild out there in the stadium, and it’s packed to the rafters. The music seems to blare out of some chamber at the bottom of things, a troop of soldiers performs acrobatics to the crowd, and the stadium erupts thunderously. You are closest to the V.I.P. section; Cato beside you. And for once in your head, everything lies still.
(PechaKucha is a compact style of presentation, invented in 2003 in Japan. In its original format, architects and artists presented twenty slides for exactly twenty seconds each, while talking about the images.)
Bernard Farai Matambo is an Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Program at Oberlin College. He received his BA from Oberlin College and an MFA from Brown University. His work has been published in Transition, Witness, Copper Nickel, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, and plume poetry among others. He has received residency fellowships from The Blue Mountain Center and the I-Park Foundation, and he has served as visiting artist at the Delta Gallery in Harare, Zimbabwe.