At the sound of gunfire I knew we were entering a new phase of hardships. It was drizzling and the chill in the air could be felt to the marrow. My grandmother used to tell stories about how nature had a way of communicating with humans and in way foreshadowing things to come, as she sat on her rusero peeling groundnuts from their shells. So I looked up to the heavens and began to wonder what kind of presage the rains would bring today. I recalled all the stories I had listened from my grandmother while she sat on the kitchen floor trying to understand what these rains meant or could mean. I had ascended to the top of one of the Musasa trees that separated our neighborhoods from the rather smothering industrial city life watching a mob of angry protestors grow in numbers as they strutted through the streets. Decades of a one party state, coupled with economic poverty and the swelling boil of inflation had become a casus belli. I feared for our future, if we were to have one that is. The empty shelves in store counters and many queues, like millipede legs, for goods and services cast a dark cloud over our daily existence and I pondered on how long it would be before it started to storm and if, like in the times of Noah, they would be an ark to save us.
There had been recent protest before, but this one seemed different, perhaps it had something to do with the rain. The mob marched towards the city chanting "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH" as an aura of defiance saturated the air. Some of the protestors held up an effigy of the president menacingly as they broke into their political songs which seemed to be the primum mobile for their defiance. Just then a squadron of police vehicles began to descend on the mob and created a road block. A solider jumped out of one of the military like vehicles with authority and began to casually harangue orders through his megaphone, "DISPERSE NOW" he ordered, but his words of warning fell on deaf ears like the raindrops falling onto the hardened tarred road. The rains seemed to be getting heavier as the mob grew louder. Their chants quickly turned into curses directed at the soldiers as the mob started to hurl stones and objects towards the man in uniform. I had been drawn to these protest since my father had been killed at one last year, I suppose in retrospect I had been looking for answers to questions I was either not allowed to ask or did not know how to ask. They said he had been struck by a stray bullet that had been fired into the crowd by the police, and since it was culturally unacceptable for children to attend funerals I was never able to verify for myself that indeed my father had been shot and killed or he had disappeared like some known outspoken political faces. My mother had always been against his going to these organized protest and they'd always argue over his going but the arguments, the conversations and the pleas always ended up the same, with him going. Its the pleas I hated the most, I must say, because they always left my mother looking rather pathetic like the partially blind women in the city whose clothes looked like the rags my mother used on her kitchen floor and would walk up to rolled up car windows at traffic lights begging for spare change with hands that looked like they had been sculptured with play dough. Her nails looked like they had just crawled from a morbid abyss. I also loathed my father for leaving my mother that way.
Today, as had become my habit, I had followed this mob on my way home from school, not heeding to my mother's stern warnings. I was curios but the chanting of the mob was just as enticing, one could easily be drawn into the singing and drum beating rhythms of these protestors. There was something about these protests that was like watching the rain fall on the window in my mothers kitchen, perhaps its in the hopelessness of every rain drop as it trickles down begging to be let in our house before they meet their fate against the ruthlessly unforgiving bricked window pane.
Suddenly just as the thunder roared in the heavens a deafening thud sounded and the chants from the mob quickly turned into screams. I had never heard the sound of gunfire so I was not sure at first what I had heard, but the mob started to disperse, like black garden ants that had water poured over them, in chaos. The screams from their poor mouths swelled the heavens as another thud sounded and this time I was certain that had to be the sound of gunfire. Soon a white cloud began to fill the wet air as it turned from defiance to panic and from panic to a hopeless imploration like the raindrops on our kitchen window. Dazed and confused the mob was running in all kinds of direction, some coughing and clutching at their throats from the smoke and effluvia of the tear gas as the soldiers began to beat and round up as many members of the protestors as they could who had been enmeshed in the snare of the tear gas. It seemed as though the policeman were intending to beat the defiance out of the protestors as the small streams from the rain that had formed along the pavements where surreptitiously turning red as they flowed violently into the city drainage.
It was one thing to be born in a poverty stricken society and another thing growing up with violence hovering over your head like an evil spirit. The violence of the protests, the violence from my mothers kitchen that which I was a victim as well as a spectator of or that which emanated from the cracked kitchen wall of our semidetached house. At school my friends used to gossip about people 'disappearing' in the middle of the night. They were stories of police rounding up some of our neighbors who were considered "trouble makers". I had listened to these stories scared to voice out my opinion because my mother had warned me to never get caught up in such "talk", "the walls have ears" she would always say pointing to the cracked kitchen wall as we sat eating our evening meals.
I often thought the wall had given in to my mothers ceaseless garrulous as well. Ramblings about her burdens, money for my school, her backpay from her job, the screams from the other side of the wall and sounds of glass shattering, or the din of bedsprings being punished at night while I lay on the floor or even her fury over the municipal worker who came at the end of every month, about anything that's why it cracked and the fact that everything was so cramped up as if the walls where closing in on us to push us out to face the same fate as the raindrops. The 'talk' of politics had no place in my mother's house ever since we lost my father. My mother found no point in talking 'things' over when talking did not bring any change. We have had the same president since our country established colonial independence from the British, but things had turned for the worst and the people where wanting to "effect" change. But freedom is not free, I had learned this at a young age and it had already cost my father his life. There was a quote that hung over the crack on the kitchen wall, my father had placed it there, though it did not mask the crack itself. It was from a political figure my father spoke admiringly of and if you listened to my father speak of him you would think he was our president, and he was mononymously known as 'Father Zimbabwe'. It read "There is something radically wrong with our country today and we are moving fast towards destruction...Young men and women are on the streets of our cities. There is terrible unemployment. Life has become harsher than ever before". Than ever before?, than ever before what? The violence? , The Independence? I questioned myself everyday I read that quote. I longed to ask my father and yearned to ask my friends what they thought about that 'Than ever before'.
As the white cloud began to dissipate policeman with quirts began to throw the rounded up people into the back of their vehicles, like herdsmen usher cattle into its kraal. I wondered if any of them would ever return to their families or would they become stories shared within the confines of friends and family who knew them like my friends had done during recess at school. As these scenarios played in my head I realized how I had lost track of time and knew my mother, who by now had surely heard the sound of gun fire mingled with the yelping of the dispersing crowd, was pacing around her tiny kitchen wondering where I was since it was past time for me to have been home. I feared that I would get caught up in the chaos too and be taken for a fleeing protestor, but the fear of my mother's favorite wooden stick was greater than the fear I had of these policeman. I had never witnessed anything with more wrath in my young life, so I made the decision to descend from the tree where I was and make a beeline for home.
As I tried to descended surreptitiously my sweater got caught up on the branch and I found myself hanging from the side of the tree. All I could think off was how I would explain my tore up sweater to my mother, leaving the sweater was not an option, I was better off not going home I thought to myself, my mother would surely drum that wooden stick on my hind like an angry protestor would drum a drum till it burst open, if I turned up without my hand-me-down sweater. As I hung there, I saw that Nhamo, one of the senior students from my school, had been apprehended by some of the policeman. They will surely be magnanimous I thought, after all he is just a teenager. Nhamo was a bright student and would always scoop up numerous awards and accolades at the end of school terms. He was also the son of a well known politician who was outspoken about his disdain for our government much like my father and every middle aged man as they stood in long queues at the bakery store only to be turned away because the baker had sold out. I feared the worst for him if the policeman had any clue as to who he was. Nhamo, as I would disturbingly late learn as I grew older, was one of the many assiduous youth whom our country either threw into prison or ran off to other countries.
Just as I was contemplating over Nhamo's fate, I felt my legs fall from me as if I was falling into a pit. I was yanked with so much force I was certain either my soul or legs had been pulled from me. I landed in a puddle of mud knocking my head first on a protruded tree root.
Before I could make any sense of what was happening I was yanked back on to my feet and when I tried to raise my head to look up I was struck across the face by a black object, which I later discovered to be the policeman's sjambok. I could hear buzzing in both of my ears as though they had a scourge of mosquitoes in them and in the midst of that buzzing I heard my mother's voice whining though I could not discern what she was saying her countenance looked as though she was in a verbal war with my father, her short stout figure pointing an invective finger at me. I was in awe that there was actually something that could deliver a greater blow than my mothers wooden stick, never in a million wooden stick strikes could I've comprehended that. As I gathered myself and got back on my feet, I noticed that blood was trickling down on to my sweater just as the rain was. One of the policeman was holding on to my wrist with a vice-like-grip and I was certain there was no blood flowing to my fingers. The strength at which the policeman was clamping on to my wrist led me to believe these where the same hands that had plucked me from the tree. I looked at him from his leather boots that had sank their teeth into the muddy earth, his trousers that seemed to repel the rain, his body was powerful and square with a paunch that looked to escape through the crevice between the buttons. I looked at him with the eye of a gallinaceous fowl that looks into the soul of its butcher. He looked at me and I saw a scar that trailed from his patrol cap through his bloodshot eye and split the corner of his moustache before it disappeared through the gap in his teeth. In fear I lowered my head.
I was so petrified that it felt as though my legs had been cemented to the muddy sleeping earth and I was certain I would've just stood there even if the policeman had order me to leave. I thought I was Daniel when he was thrown into the lions den. So I stood there my tears mingled in with the rain and blood not wanting to awaken the lions inside the policeman and wishing the turbid ground could just turn to quicksand and swallow me. I chocked my sniffles trying not to make as much as one breath. The policeman had circled Nhamo and myself in a tight circle as if they were trying to stamp a pestering kitchen bug. By now the ringing in my ears had abated and that's when I heard one of the policeman yelling "ANSWER ME YOU IMBECILE, ARE YOU DEAF". Though I was not sure what had been asked of me I opened my mouth to speak but my voice had abandoned me and I hoped it had found its way to my mother so I lowered my head into my shoulders as a tortoise would, only my head wouldn't disappear. " I said what were you doing in the tree" demanded the policeman raising his sjambok which had hung over his broad shoulder, like the snake in the garden of Eden had hung over the forbidden tree, as if he was getting ready to strike me with it again. I shut my eyes and gagged in fear I braced for another blow. But the guillotine did not fall.
"He.....He....He was just afraid" a quivering voice tried to respond in my defence. Then I heard the sjambok whisk through the air making a hissing sound, I braced for the worst hoping the sjambok would land somewhere other than my face as I was still trying to absorb the pang of the first blow. Time seemed to have frozen for a moment as the sjambok moved through the air. I could hear the raindrops drum against its unforgiving leather as it left the policeman's shoulder. I was certain the next blow would crack open the grave of fear I had buried myself in. Then came a yelp sharp enough to awaken the dead in me. I thought my eyes would certainly pop-out and run away because of the fear in them. Nhamo was laying face-down motionless with blood oozing from the side of his head. I watched as his blood meandered down his head through the back of his charcoal colored ears and merge into the puddle of mud submerging his face, like a stream flowing into a river. A part of me was certain Nhamo was dead and another part of me hoped he was playing dead.
As I watched Nhamo's motionless body, I saw the lifeless body of my father as he had laid in his coffin, I heard the sniggering of the policeman. I am certain at that moment I must have egressed out of my body and ran to fall over Nhamo for it was beside me how I had managed to break free of the policeman's grip. I placed my smaller frame over him and tried to make myself bigger than I was. I prayed for more rain, hoping that the rain would wash them away into those city drainages. As Nhamo seemed to regain his consciousness he rolled over and shoved me to the side. The policem continued to laugh like an amused crowed at a circus, but their laughter was of an impish venomous type and its poison ran through my veins and turned my tears to stone. Nhamo tried to voice something but blood not words came out his mouth. I could not tell wether his motion with his hand was to say he was okay or he was trying warn me of something. Then I heard the sound of a gun cocking over my head and footsteps moving closer from behind me. I closed my eyes and tried to coil to make myself as small as possible, like I had done at my father's funeral. A loud bang followed, the ringing in my ears resurfaced, I heard sirens wailing. When I opened my eyes I could not believe what I saw, my sweater was not on me, the sky had turned ceiling white and the sun appeared fluorescent.