Colour of the Setting Sun

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Somewhere in this world,
Lies a Beautiful Country
That has suffered greatly
But has been resilient
Though the sun might everyday set
For this it might never set

A casual observer might have found it odd, but among those gathered, there was a near-consensus that Babamukuru Kire’s time was long overdue. Any feelings of guilt that normally attend upon such thoughts had long since been superseded by a desperate, if silent collective plea that Babamukuru be spared the long and painful ordeal.

It was, quite evidently, a tough battle for Babamukuru. However heroically and relentlessly he tried, the odds weighed heavily against him, especially during the four weeks that the village had welcomed him back for the first time in many years. Now a shadow of his oldself, babamukuru had lived. Once upon a time he had been an illustrious son of the village.

The family elders had employed every effort to help their son. They sought the spiritual assistance of n’anga and maporofita, petitioning through them the ancestral spirits and the Almighty to spare a son of the soil whose existence now hung by the proverbial thread. They too had now given up, having reached the painful realisation that the end of earthly existence was imminent. They had come in all shapes and sizes. They had performed all manner of rituals to no avail.

Sekuru, the family patriarch spent his days sitting by the Dare – the place when men sit and talk, alongside the other male elders of the village. On one of the days, he remarked that “those in the winds” had made their decision to invite their son and they could do nothing but wait. He made an effort to organise the wood in the fire as if they needed rearranging even though they did not. He was just preparing his words.

“When those in the winds speak, we just listen and follow”, he had said as he gazed at the empty sky, “This is no longer in our hands”. It was a sombre declaration of a man who had reached the end of his powers.

“Did the ancestors not say chsingaperi chinoshura – Nothing lasts forever”, chipped in Sekuru Chikomo, one of the village elders, confirming the widely held belief that the end was nigh. We all knew it was a rhetorical question. He has already said what he wanted to say.

Babamukuru Kire, the subject of collective concern and empathy, rested languidly against the round wall of the hut, an old pillow supporting a tired and fragile back.

He looked dazed and lifeless, hardly blinking, as he stared into the empty light. You could never be certain whether he noticed your presence, even if you stood in the path of that sterile gaze.

His bald head resting on maiguru’s shoulder appeared to grow larger and more disproportionate to the rest of his body, perched as it did on top of a body which had become noticeably small and fragile. He spent most of his days making a painfully slow, stop-start trip around the hut, in keeping with the earth’s motion around the sun, changing places depending on the sun’s elevation.

Never slow to create identities, the little ones of the village had already nicknamed him Muteerazuva – the one who follows the sun. Ndinopidwa nechando – he said he felt very cold, even in the heat of a dry season following a barren summer. Having long lost mobility, it was left to Maiguru and other women of the village to transport him from one position to another following his commands.

The one thing that he had inherited from his energetic days was his heavy voice, which carried a lot of force and authority over those around him, especially the women and children.

He had become easily irritable; complaining of aches muviri wose – all over the body.  So fragile was his body, his transporters were repeatedly ordered and cautioned that he needed to be handled with extreme care. For the poor women, lifting and carrying Babamukuru, in search of a suitable position, where he was able to comfortably bathe himself in sunshine had become a delicate task that demanded large reserves of patience and energy.

Babamukuru Kire was the eldest in my father’s family. He was born Clemence, but the tongues of the villagers never quite managed to pronounce the foreign syllables. So they called him Kire. From an early age, he was known by that name. This was fine by him until his first day at Kwenda Mission when he discovered from his teachers that in fact his name was Clemence. From that day he renounced ‘Kire’ and insisted on being called by his “real” name. It was a battle that he was never going to win. He never did. He was stuck with the name Kire and as my generation grew up, we knew him simply as Babamukuru Kire.

When you reached a certain age in the community, you acquired the licence to refer to him as Mudhara Kire, a more casual and amiable way that young men can address their elders. Mudhara. The old chap.

It was hard to reconcile the figure before us with the big man who once represented the essence of flamboyance by the modest standards of our small rural community. Babamukuru had seen better times,. One of the first sons of the village to make it to the city and get a decent job in the 1960s, he had become a standard bearer for the community in his heyday.

Villagers were proud that one of its sons worked for murungu – a white man. Ari kumurungu wake – he is with his white employer, his mother, my grandmother, would proudly announce to other women of the village who were not so privileged. These were the days of Rhodesia when society was still racially demarcated and working for a white man was a symbol of some status.

He worked for a construction company McDonald & Son Construction Ltd, which was owned by a Mr MacDonald, a man he never stopped talking about. He had imported into the village some of the tough methods employed at the firm, saying from time to time when he suspected laziness among the village men that “Baas Macdonald would never allow this! How do you expect to work for Murungu when you can’t even move your bones!” He would admonish the village youth, using Baas Macdonald as the standard-bearer of good work ethic.

He had given all his best years to the service of ‘Baas Macdonald’, as he called him. After thirty years of dedicated service, Baas Macdonald gave him a bicycle and a neck-tie bearing the company’s logo. The company had decided that Mudhara Kire had given enough service. He walked out a proud holder of a certificate of long service. A bicycle, a neck-tie with the corporate logo and a certificate of long service – those were the prized possessions he walked away with from his forty years of commitment to Baas McDonald. He never complained. He walked away a proud man, grateful that Baas Macdonald had honoured him, a son of the village.

When you walked through the streets of Harare in his company, he never stopped reminding you of the great work that he had accomplished with Baas Macdonald. After a few trips, it became a nightmare – he never got tired of pointing out the buildings, precincts and water fountains which he claimed to have personally built with his bare hands.

He had a life story of each building, often embellished, we thought, to reflect his own immense contribution. There was once a large tree here, he would say, and here, we had to fill a large crater. Do you know there is a stream that runs under this road? – he would ask, pointing to Julius Nyerere Way, the busy road that runs diagonally across Harare’s central business district. He could have won a place as Harare’s historian if he wanted.

Like all men of his time, Mudhara Kire had never considered the city as a permanent home. No. Home was in the village; the city was only a place of work. At least in the early years, his allegiance was chiefly to the village.

So it was that, when Mudhara Kire married, Maiguru and the children were destined to remain in the village, while he worked in the city. In any event, it was explained, the city fathers in Salisbury, as Harare was then called, provided accommodation suitable only for single African men. The demands of the mode of production in the city required the men’s labour but paid scant regard to the African family. He had his single quarters in the Matapi Hostels in the then high-density suburb called Harare the name that was later shared with the larger city when freedom arrived. So, like most of his peers, Babamukuru maintained a home kumaruzevha, in the rural areas, where maiguru and the children lived and worked the fields.

In keeping with the tradition, Babamukuru travelled to the village on a regular basis. His arrival from the city was always a special occasion for the whole village – one of the few occasions when villagers tasted city-baked bread, sometimes even new clothes, and sweets for the children and the elders had a rare opportunity to drink clear beer. Scores of villagers would spend the day at Hwara bus station, waiting for Rutendo, Chivero or Ruredzo bus service, which brought Babamukuru and many of the city-dwellers, to help him carry all the groceries.

Something changed however in the years after independence.  Babamukuru came less and less to the village. Promotion, he explained – he had become a very busy man – working through most weekends for Baas McDonald. Who in the village could question the word of its largest benefactor? Was this not the hand that brought food to the table? No, you do not spite the hand that feeds you.

Despite his now infrequent visits, Babamukuru would still go to Mbare Musika, the bus terminus in Harare to look for travellers from nearby villages and entrust them with parcels for his family and the villagers. He would negotiate with the Chawasarira or Kuwadzana bus crews and ask them to drop parcels for the family. “Ane ganda anenyama – she who has the skin of an animal at least can say he has meat compared to someone who only has mushrooms”, was Maiguru and the villagers’ verdict, drawing comfort from the material goods that he provided.

However, as time went on, even those parcels got smaller and more infrequent. Villagers spoke longingly about the good old days. Babamukuru became “chichoni chemuHarare” –  he who remains permanently ensconced in the comfort of the city.
Then in 1986, news filtered to the village that Babamukuru was enjoying liaisons with a new breed of female companions prowling the streets of the new Harare. Others said he had married one of those vanozora Ambi, the artificially lightened ones of the city. Njuzu dzemutaundi – mermaids of the city.

His trips to the village became more and more infrequent. He would come to the village on rare occasions, once or twice a year, often when there was a funeral or other of the family’s traditional functions, which he could not otherwise avoid. For all his recent changes, Babamukuru was still very loyal to the ancestors and for that reason alone he never missed a traditional function in the village. It was only during those rare occasions that Maiguru and the children would get a chance to see their husband and father.
Yet, even then his attention was so overwhelmed by the demands of whatever occasion that had caused him to come, that they were lucky if they just managed to shake his hand. He was a changed man, Mudhara Kire but village elders still deferred to him.   The village gossipers spent hours trying to solve the mystery of maiguru’s resilience. Why should she live like a widow when her husband is alive?, they asked, as if they had any real interest in her welfare.  

Now he had come back to the village, a beaten man. Lying motionless on the reed mat, resting on maiguru’s lap, it was difficult to fathom how this woman managed to remain so faithful and patient after all those years of neglect. There are lucky people in this world whose public profile ensures that they are often awarded prestigious accolades for their deeds, but if ever there were an award for the unsung heroes of this world, then maiguru would be a worthy nominee in any category. She belongs to that rare category of the human species that have the resilience to sail admirably through adversity. They do so with extraordinary calmness and genuine grace. They make it look so easy; you would be tempted to think it’s normal. She patiently employed her labour to clean after Babamukuru whenever his systems failed, feeding him with a spoon as if he was her own little baby, constantly fanning away the large Green Bombers, the large green flies which, like vultures awaiting their dying prey, hovered and buzzed around Babamukuru in anticipation.

Babamukuru was by now wrapped from the waist in a long Zambia cloth, normally a woman’s garment. Having lost control of his bowels, the Zambia cloth was just about the only convenient garment with which to protect his modesty, dispensing with the customary pair of trousers. A conclusion had been reached that such manly garments would otherwise cause considerable difficulty on those frequent occasions when he needed emergency relief. Neither the big nor the small job was a matter over which he could exercise free will. It just happened. 

Over the weeks since his arrival, the scene of Babamukuru’s situation had uncannily become an instant attraction in the community and therefore, a point of gatherings. They said they came to provide community comfort to one of their own. In the middle of the dry season following a severe drought, there was very little for the villagers to do in the fields.

In a community where amenities were few and far between and where there was nothing to draw people together outside the routine, forced and boring misangano – Party meetings, Babamukuru’s situation provided a convenient and for some, worthy reason to meet and talk. Villagers gathered at the homestead from morning till sunset, and sometimes, they even stayed overnight. Of course there were other reasons for these regular gatherings – there was a constant flow of alcoholic beverages and food. The plight of Babamukuru Kire was not the priority.

The gatherings were good, however, for Babamukuru Kire. He met old friends. He met the people that he had grown up with in the community, people that he had forgotten in the intervening years. They would talk for hours about their glorious old days. They made the past seem so beautiful. Those memories must have done a lot to carry him through the otherwise dark and dreary days.  He was a renowned joker, Babamukuru. 

“I will not sleep today”, he would say, when he found the energy, “What if I sleep and never wake up!”, he would smile lazily, attempt to laugh though at times that laugh would end up as a heavy bout of coughs.

“All you people need me”, he would say, “Look, since when, except at those silly Party meetings, have you been able to gather like this? I should be President! I never called you here, yet you just come to me freely! Tell me, did I force anyone to come? You all came here freely didn’t you? Next election, I will run for President!”

The crowd would join in raucous laughter, appreciating that a man in so much pain should still find capacity for humour but also admiring the freedom that came with the powerlessness of one’s condition. Babamukuru would taunt those in authority, with the recklessness of one who knows nothing would be done to him.

“Hey, where is that Party Chairman – Makicheni, where are you? Do you want me to apply for a permit under your stupid law, that I am hosting regular meetings with all these followers of mine? Should I apply under your Party’s silly laws? You people need your heads examined!” he would taunt Chairman Makicheni.

Chairman Makicheni would only laugh along with the crowd, suddenly realising the moral power and freedom of a seemingly powerless man.  It dawned on me on such occasions, that sometimes the most desperate people are, in fact, the most powerful, perhaps because in their desperation, they have very little to lose. They can say or do what they want. They have freedom of speech and action. It’s only that in most cases, they never realise that they have so much power over their more privileged peers. Perhaps, the threat of looming death makes people more free. Babamukuru was in pain but he was also the freest individual among all those gathered.

It was also a convenient forum for passing time, and of course, the gossipers had a field day. Here, every little story was chewed over and over and the unlucky subjects of gossip were wrung dry. Did you hear that Mai Frambi is having an affair with Shokombishi, that old Kuwadzana Bus driver? And that Josefa’s daughter eloped with Chodokufa’s son, although it is well known she is pregnant for Chinyemba’s son? Did you hear that Machekecha, the notorious witch was caught stark naked at Madzibaba Jezman’s homestead? Madzibaba Jezman prayed and spoke in tongues that only blessed men can understand and Machekecha could not escape and she was caught red-handed. Stark-naked! How does Mudhara Chibage, the one who never attends a funeral, manage such a rich harvest in a year of drought , when all of us have nothing to talk of – is that not why they say he has a chikwambo – the little goblin that works in his fields overnight? The gossipers revelled in these gatherings; people found things to laugh about and the days got by, sometimes people even forgot the cause that brought them daily to Babamukuru’s homestead.
Of course, Babamukuru’s situation presented some potential opportunities. Funerals were the few occasions when people could have some meat for a meal. It was as if when villagers came each morning they did so just to check if Babamukuru had finally given up the fight and that Bantom, the family bull was in line for slaughter.

Sometimes, the mischievous ones would generate a rumour that Babamukuru had finally succumbed and neighbouring villagers would descend on the village howling and screaming, asking why the gods had deemed it fit to take away such an illustrious member of the community so soon, only to discover, to their dismay, that Mudhara Kiro was still hanging on.

Chirambakusakara – I am still here – fit as a fiddle! Nhaka muchachema mukazvirega – you will cry until you can cry no more!” Mudhara Kiro would say, laughing at those whom he felt were prematurely commemorating his demise. He had already become used to these scenes and he was not bothered.  

We had driven Babamukuru back to the village four weeks before. He had spent several months in and out of Harare Hospital, each time complaining of a different set of ailments. He had tried all kinds of hospital medicines to no avail. The pain would cease on one part of the body and then reappear elsewhere the next day. He had visited all the mapositori and n’anga and consumed all kinds of supposedly blessed waters and concoctions. They had prayed for him and called for divine intervention on countless occasions, but their petitions were either not heard or there were simply ignored. Babamukuru lost his house in Mbare. He was penniless. His female companions had deserted him. That is when he checked into Harare Hospital. They kept him there for two months. Penniless, sick and dying a very lonely man.

News eventually filtered to the village and maiguru came, along with other female relatives from the village to provide him with the care and comfort that he had withheld for so many years. Those of us who knew his situation had found it hard initially, to ask Maiguru to shoulder that burden. Even he must have been too embarrassed to ask. The willingness to help, the kindness and generosity of that woman, her capacity to forgive, is something that lives with you forever. I could never understand that there are some human beings, who, having been the recipients of such abuse and neglect, could nevertheless muster a sufficient spirit of generosity to forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones and come to the aid of their very tormentors.  Perhaps these are the ones that were really created in His image, after all.The routine at the hospital never wavered – same usual questions sand the same usual responses.

Vaswera sei? How is he today?”, visitors would ask Maiguru and the women who spent all day at the hospital, ensuring they were by his side each visiting hour.

Vamboswera havo. He has had a fair day”, Maiguru and the women would respond.“Is he eating well?” visitors would continue probing; questions which were asked not always out of concern for Babamukuru’s welfare but because the visitors felt they were expected to enquire.

“Not much, but at least he managed to eat some bananas this afternoon. If you mash them, at least he can eat and swallow easily”, Maiguru would respond.

“Ah, zvirinani – it’s better if he eats something. They are nutritious, bananas, they are”, visitors would offer the unsolicited piece of nutritional advice. These occasions are never short of experts on all manner of subjects. Maybe people just say things to pass time or to be seen to be concerned.

The doctors released Babamukuru shortly afterwards. There was not much they could do for him at that stage, they said. By then Babamukuru’s figure had contracted sharply. He could barely walk; we had to prop him up along the dour hospital corridors. I hate the smells of the hospital so in some ways it was a relief that we would not be returning.


So it was that four weeks before, we drove Babamukuru back to the village, from where he had packed his bags in search of glory many years before. He was returning to the village with nothing. Doctors had said he would be lucky to enjoy more than two weeks. 

But as we stood there, four weeks later, on the periphery of the homestead, watching him with his back against the wall of the hut, he had hung on; clinging on to what little remained of his eventful life. He was a smaller figure than when we saw the last weekend, when we came down to the village. The trips to the village had become regular each weekend on account of Mudhara Kire’s situation. I suspect bottle-store owners at the local township were pretty pleased with the brisk business that they enjoyed at the weekends which was largely financed by us.  

The week before, Tete Kerina, my father’s sister, had come up with the grand suggestion that we visit a n’anga to seek further intervention of the spirits. This was not normal she had said emphatically, that a man so ill could survive this long.

She said that the prolonged illness was a message from the ancestors that they were not ready to take Mukoma Kire, as she called her brother.  According to Tete Kerina, the family needed to do something to bring him back to health. A large, feisty woman with a streak of arrogance and overbearing personality, she quickly sought to rally people to her cause.

Chivanhu ichi”, she observed, declaring her Eureka moment. “It’s spiritual. Let’s consult the spirits”, she emphasised. She was forceful and authoritative.

Her theory was based on a dream that she claimed to have had the previous night. She claimed to have agonised all day before deciding to share it with everyone. She said that, in the dream she had seen a large shadow of a two-headed man walking across the yard of the homestead. The shadow was moving slowly and menacingly towards her Mukoma Kire, who was lying helpless and alone on the reed mat.

Then suddenly, she said, dramatising every moment with elaborate gestures, there was a bolt of lightning in the sky and her Mukoma Kire had suddenly jumped to his feet and started running away from the big shadow. At that moment the menacing shadow withdrew and disappeared. She recounted her dream with the dramatic presentation of an accomplished actor. I bet some were convinced.

According to Tete Kerina, she had deduced that this was a sure sign from the spirits that her Mukoma Kire could still be saved. Tete Kerina managed to mobilise the other elders of the village and soon enough it almost became an accepted fact that Babamukuru was the victim of an elaborate scheme of witchcraft.

Tete Kerina attempted to extend her preaching of the witchcraft theory to “vakomana vekuHarare”, the boys from Harareas they all called us. After all, we were treasury of the village and any decision could not pass without our approval. We had the money and the means of transport. She needed to bring us onside for one last shot at the n’anga.She discovered that not many of us could be easily swayed.

We found a very willing and committed spokesman, my cousin Ticha, who ironically, seemed to share with Tete Kerina the gene and talent for dramatisation of all things simple. He responded very quickly,“Let dreams remain dreams, Tete Kerina. Next time when you experience such bad dreams, turn your pillow and face the other side. Don’t abuse the ancestors. We all know why Mudhara Kire is unwell. Why do you people refuse to accept reality? Why do you want to hide behind a finger? The more you bring ancestors into this, the more they will get angry with you! You want us to take him to another of your healers where he will get yet another dose of those nasty concoctions. Let nature take its course. Chabhenda chabhenda, njanji haiswatudzwi – things won’t change”, said Tichaona, surely, speaking for us all. He was often high on mbanje, but we all agreed on that occasion that if it were mbanje that had given him the courage to articulate those observations to Tete Kerina, then we would happily buy him some of the stuff every time we needed a spokesperson.

But sensing that he had found rare approval from his peers, Man Tich, as he preferred to be known, decided to take it to the next level. So he continued, “I think people here must speak the truth. People here need to know why Mudhara is bed-ridden. Why do people like to beat about the bush and pretend? Let’s be clear about Mudhara’s illness – who knows, it might help others who are here -”.

His unprepared speech to no one in particular was quickly attracting a small but excited audience, seemingly eager for some action, when Mukoma Givhi, an elder cousin, took Man Tich aside for a quiet talk. Man Tich could be a loose cannon sometimes and he needed to be kept in check.

“You have made your point, munin’ina Ticha. It is not necessary to wash the family linen in public”, counselled Mukoma Givhi, in a fatherly sort of way.

Man Tich managed to calm down when I gave him a packet of cigarettes and a pint of Castle Lager. Oft-times, those items were enough to pacify Man Tich. He had played a useful role though, managing to draw out any impetus from the Tete Kiristina-driven grand plan to take Babamukuru to yet another traditional healer.

So this weekend we had come again, with more food and more beer and the usual crowds were there. I sensed they knew our routine. Mudhara Kire was still hanging on.The sun was setting when we decided it was time to return to Harare. There was nothing much to stay for in the village. As usual, we went round to say our goodbyes, unsure yet again, whether they would be the final goodbyes to Mudhara Kire. This was the fourth time we were going through the same motions.

“Travel well, boys”, said Mudhara Kiro, as he always said on similar occasions, “the roads are full of lions. I need someone to bury me, so don’t dare go before me!” he commanded jokingly.

“Don’t think for a moment that I will be gone when you return. I will still be here, vafana! Handiendi. Imi ndimi muchaenda muchindisiya pano – I will be here when you have all departed!” As usual, we all burst into laughter, lightening an otherwise heavy moment.

Takangomirira”, said Sekuru, with a heavy tone of resignation, “Utsva horurimi haruna marapiro – you cannot treat a burn on the tongue”, he remarked. Sometimes, there is just no solution to certain problems.
As we drove away from the gathering of the waiting men and women, I was no longer sure what they were waiting for. None of us in that car said a word, until Man Tich remarked in his usual, nonchalant style, “Chekumirira hapanaapa – there is nothing to wait for”.

We drove away in silence, as the setting sun painted a beautiful red and orange glow in the distant horizon. It makes beautiful scenes when it comes in the morning and creates beautiful things when it returns to its mother in the evening. I switched on the radio. The sun was setting and it was beautiful.