Christmas under African Skies


December 24, every year, we piled into my father’s blue Datsun 120Y for our annual Christmas visit to my mother’s village in Berejena (Chivi). We would have been preparing for this trip for several weeks prior. Cans of Olivine cooking oil, nestle powdered milk, Sun jam, loaves upon loaves of bread, bags of rice, sugar, flour salt and Stork Margerine. We would set off for the four hour drive at 4am in order to beat the suffocating heat which would melt the margarine, leaving the rest of the groceries and luggage besmirched in an oily yellow mess.

Once we were all settled in the car, my mother in the passenger’s seat with two year old Vimbai on her lap and my other sister Nancy sandwiched between Dennis and I in the back seat, my father would lock up the house and we would take off. The excitement we felt would wipe away the last vestiges of sleep from our eyes and we would look out of the car windows and play ‘I spy with my little eye’. We would remark at the change in landscape as we drove along the Bulawayo- Beitbridge road towards Mbalabala. Sharp escarpments sparsely populated with shrubs would give way to huge grey/green granite formations, some of which looked like baby elephants lying on their sides with sinewy trees growing on them. If the rains had been good, there would be sprouting green grass and muddy potholes on the sides of the tarred road. If there had been no rain, the landscape would be dry, parched and desert like.

At Mbalabala we would make a left turn towards Zvishavane and wave good bye to the over loaded minivans or kombis headed towards Beitbridge, the border town and conduit into South Africa. My brother and I would start to sing quietly at first then loudly as my mother joined in harmonizing to whatever song we were singing. Our favorite song was “Lean on me”, originally sung by Bill Withers, which we would do in three part harmony with my father improvising the guitars and the drums. The miles would fly by as we entertained ourselves and before we knew it, we were in Masvingo Town and the sun would be beating down relentlessly from clear azure skies. We would stop to refuel the car and to get some crates of Coca Cola, Fanta and Cream soda which would be placed on the floor of the back row so that our feet would have to rest on top of the bottles. The discomfort would only be for an hour before we finally arrived home –kumusha, ekhaya!

The drive from Masvingo to the turn off which would take us to Berejena was my favorite part of the drive. The huge grey mountains that flank the wide tarred road always made me melancholic. I would look at the isolated trees along the slopes and imagine helicopters during the war dropping solder’s who would hastily make their way down and into the surrounding villages. I imagined the freedom fighters camped at the base of these mountains singing their songs of freedom and indoctrinating villagers at the pungwes (all night vigils) on the need to be loyal and steadfast in the struggle. I imagined them eating chickens and goats and mountains of sadza prepared under cover by the village maidens and surreptitiously carried from the homesteads, through the bush to the base camp at the foot of the mountain. My mind would wonder as I imagined the spirits of dead soldiers and comrades restlessly roaming across the valleys and mountains. We would drive past burnt out buildings, relics of the recent war which had culminated in Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, and I would wonder whether there had been anybody inside while the fires raged. I would add their lamenting spirits to those of the wailing dead soldiers and comrades and I would get goose bumps as I imagined all these spirits joining their voices with those of the heroes of the first war of liberation-Chimurenga [1896-1897]. I imagined those early heroes who fought against British colonials, Nehanda and Kagubi leading a vibrant song with a million harmonies as they flew across the eerily beautiful, magical, rugged landscape of Zimbabwe.

Our arrival would be heralded by the sound of ululation from my numerous aunts and grandmothers. My motley crew of twenty or more cousins would appear from nowhere and run behind the car, swathed in plumes of dust as the car thundered up a small hill towards my grandfather’s homestead. My siblings and I would turn our heads and shout out the names of the friends we were soon to meet again. “There’s Sheki, and look at Hazvinei and Ndaka and Mainini Judy!”
As soon as the car came to a complete stop, we would bolt out of the doors and into the arms of our beloved family members. The comforting smell of wood smoke from the cooking fires which was the signature scent of my aunts and grandmothers would envelop me and I would sigh in happiness with my head against the bosom of my maternal grandmother.

It was Christmas time and we were home with family! My cousins would drag us away from the adults once the formal greetings were over and we would head out of the home stead towards the stream and the bush to play and to catch up on what had gone one since our last visit. The terrain was very familiar because it had been my playground since I was three years old. I was now 10 years old. We would head out to the stream and dip our feet in the murky water. Tales of njuzu (mermaids) would flow and gossip about who had recently been labeled a witch was plentiful. We reveled in the stories of fights and which teenage cousin had fallen pregnant and eloped before the elders found out about her disgraced state and meted out justice.

That evening after our bucket baths behind the pit latrine, we would enjoy a supper of Sadza and curdled milk sprinkled with brown sugar. The children would be placed in age group categories that would all eat from the same bowl using our hands, chatting all the while and making fun of one another. It was a simple meal but one made so special because we partook of it communally. We basked in one another’s presence as we appreciated the still quiet night without fear of gunfire or the frightening intrusion by soldiers or comrades.

The sounds of muted adult voices emanating from inside the huts imbued us with a sense of security as we ate our meal under the star studded black velvet sky.
After the plates were cleared away, the drums would come out and the merriment would begin in earnest. We would sing old songs which I remembered from the time I was three years old and perform the traditional dances that accompanied them. The city dwellers would be taught the new songs and the latest dances. We celebrated Christmas with Shona Roman Catholic Rythms, Dutch Reformed church hymns and with old Karanga folk songs led by my grandfather and his five wives. We danced the Mhande, the Shangari and the Bira, and we learned the Dhikondo. From the oldest grey heads supported by their walking sticks to the youngest toddler running on the spot and falling on their backside, everyone took their turn dancing, while the drummers feverishly pummeled their instruments till sweat poured down their faces in rivulets. This was Christmas under the stars, with the fire burning for illumination, and the mysterious mountains standing guard on all four sides…

By the time the children woke up on Christmas morning, the homestead would be abuzz with activity. The carcass of a newly slain goat would be dangling from a Siringa tree at the back of the yard. There would be three or four cooking fires with big iron cast tripod pots bubbling away and the smell of goat offal filled the air. My mother would be bent over her underground oven where she baked her pink, green and yellow cupcakes- zvitumbuwa. My older cousins would be sitting on grass mats, with trays of rice on their laps getting rid of small stones and chaff. Brenda Fassie’s “Weekend Special” or some other hit would be blaring from the gramophone planted on a chair outside the main house.

After a breakfast of porridge with peanut butter, thick sliced bread with margarine and Sun jam and sweet, milky Tanganda tea, all the children would bath and get into their brand new Christmas clothes. That was our Christmas present, a brand new dress and a pair of shoes. We would parade in front of the busy adults in our pink, green, blue, red orange, purple and yellow attire and then we would dance, kicking up dust and laughing as we ate toffee sweets, Bazooka and Dandy bubble gum. We would drink Fanta, Cream soda and Coca Cola from the bottle. One of my favorite aunts would bring over a plate of grilled meat and we would eat while dancing. This is what I grew up experiencing: that when people get together at Christmas, they eat and laugh and they dance.

Sometimes we would take a stroll to the nearest dry goods store, where there would be a gramophone outside on the verandah and people dancing. This gave us an opportunity to see what the other children in the village were wearing and to see who the best dancer was. We would twirl, gyrate and stomp to the sounds of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Safirio Mazdikatire, Yellowman, Solomon Skuza, Lovemore Majaivana and Oliver Mutukuzdi. There were at lease thirty children engaged in dance and we would all get sweets from the owner of the store because we attracted customers, who came to spectate, to participate when the beat became overpoweringly irresistible and ultimately to buy beer to quench their dance induced thirst.

Hot and tired, we would head back home to more drinks and lots of food: Rice and chicken or goat, with salad (coleslaw). This time each person would have their own plate and we would eat with a spoon. It was Christmas, a special occasion which warranted special eating etiquette. We would eat cup cakes and more drinks and eventually we would end up lying on grass mats under a tree in a semi comatose state from gorging ourselves. No one would speak but we would lie in a comfortable silence absorbing the sounds around us, each in their own world. My thoughts were always about how lucky we were to have such a huge family. Of my age group we were about 12 of us, girls and boys and we all got along most of the time. I would think about how perfectly we all fit together and how special we were all made to feel by the adults. This for me was what Christmas really meant: being with family and being made to feel special.

Christmas day would end with more eating and dancing and invariably one or more of the grey heads would get totally inebriated and regale us with escapades of their youth. We would be rolling in laughter at both the stories and the story teller, who would slur his words or repeat the same sentence three times, thanks to my grandmothers’ potent home brew. The stars would wink at us, a glittering canopy above our heads, and the fire would jump and flicker in mirth, while the mysterious mountains stood guard.

The best Christmas gift for me was watching the rapture in my 10 and 7 year old daughters’ eyes today as I read this piece to them. I kept my 4 year old twins engaged and interested in the story by doing the dances for them and acting out some of the scenes…they liked the eating parts the most- they are truly their mother’s children.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and family who observe this special holiday. And to those who do not, I hope the story was a good read anyway!!!