I am squatting in a blue dish of hot water inside my mother’s living room, feeling akin to a freshly slaughtered chicken, naked and plucked raw of its feathers. Exposed. Ambuya chants fervently to the ancestors, pouring a strong smelling concoction of potent herbs over my head, my back, and my breasts. It trickles down to the base of my spine, forming a rivulet that takes up the shape of my bare ass and saturates the geography of all my intimate parts. Life is being spoken over the tortured vessel of my body. Water fills my nostrils. I open my mouth to inhale, and water floods the basin of my mouth. I choke, spurting herbs. I try to focus on my breathing, the slow rise and fall of my chest and the beating of my heart in tune with it all. It’s an orchestra of all my organs. The expansion of this ribcage, the sound of fear being digested inside my stomach. The smell of candles burning in the room, lighting up the pitch blackness of the night. Silence, it shrouds the entire house. Induced by the absence of electricity.
“Get up,” Ambuya commands. I rise out of the murky water, obediently and my mother wraps a towel around my wet body. The floor beneath my feet is cool, polished wood board. I shuffle awkwardly towards the dining table and take a seat. The clock on the wall reads 8 o’clock. Her one hand is stretched open gesturing a handshake. The other carries a ticking pistol. It’s as if she is brokering peace with me while holding a gun to my head. The offer is still on the table, the timetable. A chance to start again. To start over, afresh without the remnants of this fragile existence or the pain of being held hostage to my own thoughts. I stare at the TV screen, blank and lifeless. A mosquito sinks its proboscis into my skin. I do not bother to smack it away. I let it draw out blood. Perhaps the ancestors sent it to take out the bad blood in me. My grandmother and my mother speak over me like I am merely a piece of furniture decorating the room. A piece of furniture with legs and a heartbeat.
“I told you not to let this child deny her gifts, now look.” Exasperation punctuates Ambuya’s tone. There is a sharpness to her tongue as she speaks, acute and direct like the fine point of a new knife. My mother holds the sharp end of this verbal blade with her callused hands but I can still see the look of being cut open embedded in her facial expression.
“Ma, we don’t believe in these things. Christ is our savior.” She sounds defeated. “We’ll pray about it and we’ll ask the priest to come over, sprinkle some holy water over this house.” At this sentiment Ambuya sucks her teeth noisily. “Vana vemazuva ano.” She spits. “I pray too and I can tell you now that God’s word says, “My people die because of a lack of knowledge.”
“Ignorance will kill you first before any spiritual affliction ever will. Sprinkle holy water on who, her ancestors?
“So then? She is not being attacked by evil spirits. She has a supernatural gift and it is our duty to help her navigate this season of her life. To teach her and guide her so she has control over it instead of it being in control of her.”
The first time I fainted at work, a co-worker found me slumped up against the toilet in one of the rest rooms I was cleaning. I came to in a brightly lit room, the putrid smell of detergent on my work clothes and a pounding in my head so painful that I couldn’t fully open my eyes to see. It happened a couple more times in different places, once when I was stationed by the chip fryer and a second time behind the cash register at the main entrance. According to Itai, a customer walked up to me to place an order and I simply zoned out. I stared into the nothingness surrounding them, hands limp by my sides barely moving. A standing corpse, are the exact words she used. She found me a seat from one of the back rooms and served at my cash register for the rest of the day while I remained in that corpse like state.
I want to say that this has never happened to me before. I want to express shock and outrage and possibly dissolve into a pool of tears, anything, any real emotion other than this prevailing feeling of indifference. A part of me is closed off and numb. A part of me is unfazed by the theatrics of it all.
I knew something was wrong with me at sixteen.
And you might argue that most sixteen year olds generally feel that something is wrong with them at that age. Puberty is an alienating experience. That’s nothing new. But my feeling of otherness did not stem from acne breakouts or starting my period later than half the girls in my stream, neither was it a product of my bra size or lack thereof. My feeling of otherness began the day I started seeing lions walking past the chalkboard in the classroom. Large, rugged looking creatures with wide fleshy torsos and low rumbling growls. It was two of them. A male and a female. Simba and Nala, I had come to call them although they looked nothing like their sweeter and more gentle animated counterparts from the 1994 classic.
I walked home by myself that Friday afternoon. The sun was a football in the sky, rolling over a clear blue pitch into the soft net of white clouds and time was the skilled player moving it along deftly, with his feet. The world was my stadium and I was a confused little girl standing in the midst of it shouting out into the void. How does one become the goalkeeper of their own destiny? I thought about my girlfriends and how most of them were getting their hearts broken for the first time, obsessing over pimply faced teenage boys who had just discovered the power of their voice boxes. I pondered all the nuances of teenage life in the mid-2000s, the bedazzled low-rise, denim jeans and Nokia mobile phones with the cute jingles, the emergence of urban grooves in Zimbabwe, my obsession with Roki and how every girl braided her hair like Alicia Keys and secretly hoped to become bootylicious like Beyoncé.
I wondered how the world around my age mates was pulsing and vibrating with colour and promise and hormones while mine was morphing into something strange and inconceivable. Something out of a JK Rowling novel. Some real Harry Potter type shit. And as I came up the corner of the bus stop leading home flanked by two lions on either side of me that only I could see and the rest of the world could not, I felt sick. I was not a white, British boy with a scar on his forehead who had some divine, magical purpose to save the universe from doom and destruction. I was Vimbiso, a black teenager living in the middle class suburbs of Bulawayo with a particular weakness for Piccadilly Peanut Bars, whose favourite TV show was Studio 263 and whose only desire was to have clear skin and make it through high school.
I told my mother when I got home. She got up, lifted her navy blue Bible with the letters Holy Bible embossed on its side and frantically waved it over my body like she was Carrie’s mother from the Stephen King horror. I had only told her that I could see lions and not that I had telekinetic powers.
“Are you on drugs?” she asked, grabbing me by the arm.
“Ma, really. Where would I get drugs from?” I asked outraged. My only addiction as aforementioned was to Peanut bars. “Maybe I’m schizophrenic.” I concluded tossing my satchel onto the sofa, although I was fully aware that something as severe as schizophrenia could not be self-diagnosed. And the way this goes in my part of the world is that depression and mental illness are not things that black people can claim. It is the inheritance of white folk and yet, so is the religion we use to wish away the things we do not fully understand.
“In Jesus name, you are not schizophrenic or depressed or anything of that sort.” My mother dismissed irritably. “No child of mine.” My mother does not have any other children. I am her only child.
My mother comes from a long line of healers. Her mother is a healer and her mother’s mother was one too. But when my mother met my father, a conservative Christian man, she fell in love with him and fell out of love with who she was and where she came from. When I turned six mama found out my father was cheating on her and had another family in the capital city. She divorced him but she never divorced his faith. Christ was her new husband.
“You never brought her home to be introduced to the ancestors when she was born. What did you think was going to happen after all this time?” Ambuya had come down from her rural home in Wedza that very same day. She had boarded the midday bus round about the time I knocked off from school, arriving at our doorstep in the evening. “I had a dream. They are seeking her out now. It’s been sixteen years.” She said, placing her small suitcase at my feet.
My mother was already on the offensive but I could not have been happier to see my grandmother. She was so beautiful and strange to me, sometimes I wondered if she was real. As I laid out fresh sheets for her in the guest bedroom, they continued to discuss the details of my ‘condition’ at length. It was a heated discussion, so heated in fact that I prepared some tea and hoped the steam rising from the cups would be a worthwhile distraction. I watched Ambuya as she took a bite of her Marie biscuit, chewing contemplatively, and imagined that she was trying to do the same with mama’s words, trying to digest them.
“Amai, she is my daughter and I have the right as her parent to choose what I believe is best for her until she is old enough to decide for herself. Her christening certificate is there in my bedroom. She belongs to the Anglican faith and that’s that. Besides I didn’t have my child out of wedlock so it’s not like her father had to pay damages or anything. I did everything right.”
“You know very well that’s not how it works.” Ambuya retorted, taking slow, thoughtful sips of tea. “He never brought cows home for you. So according to custom the two of you were never actually married. This child belongs to the maternal side of the family, not the paternal one. It does not matter that you put her father’s surname on the birth certificate. We do not know her father’s ancestors but you are our daughter. She needs to come home so we can perform a cleansing ceremony and introduce her properly.”
“Amai, I will pray about it to my God and this thing that is plaguing her will go away. Please.” Silence, a momentary breath lingered between the two matriarchs. Ambuya opened her mouth to speak again and this time with more conviction,
“Chipo, the things of the spirit world cannot be understood with human eyes. I am telling you this now, this child’s life is not a thing to debate. I’m not trying to compete with you in the Olympics of faith. I’m simply asking you to look at the facts. The ancestors sense your hostility. Perhaps that’s why they never imprinted upon you.”
“Oh and so you’re saying they skipped a generation and landed upon my daughter.” Mama laughed but it was a mirthless laugh. The evening ended without much resolution. Ambuya snuck some herbs into my underwear drawer and went on the bus back home the following day, promising to keep me in her prayers. Of course my mother threw out the whole drawer and burnt the underwear with it too which I thought to be a bit extreme. I didn’t see the lions for quite some time after that initial encounter and thought that perhaps my mother was right and indeed it was a passing phase, until O level exams came round. I passed out in almost every exam I wrote and for the ones where I managed to stay awake the words would crawl across the pages like ants scurrying across a carcass’s skin.
By the time I was seventeen I was on extremely heavy prescription medicine, with a faulty memory and a deep sense of paranoia. November rains had fallen the previous year, green mealies emerged from the soil sweet and ripe for cutting. Exam results were ready in January. A different harvest. Where others would relish the delicious fruits of their labour, I was to reap a quiet devastation. In a deep, twisted sense of irony I had come from a brilliant crop of students, only to be turned into the chaff separated from the wheat. The thought of writing O level again in the same school, while my peers sported new, crisp A-level uniforms with the senior court shoe devastated me. I asked my mother to change schools.
It didn’t get much better after that. It got a little worse.
Seventeen is the year that men followed me home. Men I did not recognize. Men who claimed to have an intimate knowledge of me. I would get off the bus after school, walk down the dusty potholed stretch of road fifteen minutes from the bus stop to my house and a shadow would always linger behind me. At some point I would start running, fear enveloping my chest and filling my lungs to a point where I was convinced that I could not breathe and would die right there on the spot. As soon as I stopped I would feel a masculine hand on my shoulder and the concerned voice of someone asking me if I was alright.
Vee, are you okay babe?” I’d look up to a guy, maybe three or four years older than me staring at me like I had horns growing out of my head.
Genuine shock written all over my face, I would ask why the fuck I was being followed home by this stranger.
“What? I always wait for you by the bus stop at this time and we walk home together,” was the simple response.
“I don’t know who you are and I need you to stay away from me, fucking pervert.” I always tried to sound more threatening than I actually felt, venom dripping from my tongue.
“Stop making me out to be some kind of creep. You said the age difference didn’t bother you.”
I said. What did he mean by, I said? Was there something taking over my body without my knowledge or consent? Was I some kind of sleepwalking serial dater?
It took me a while to figure out that I had been existing in a very strange, alternate version of 50 first dates. To Drew Barrymore’s credit, at least she knew the script and got to read it beforehand. Even if her character suffered memory loss, she knew the lines to her story as an actress. She knew what came next. I felt like I had been handed a movie role I never asked for and I wasn’t entirely sure where the direction of this particular storyline was headed or who was scripting this storyline for that matter. There were moments where I felt like standing up in the middle of class and just yelling, “Cut!”
Rumours as fat as juicy, parasitic-looking flies were flying all over the school infecting every student’s perception of me. I had a couple of screws missing from my head. I was loose. I hung out with too many older men. I had daddy issues.
This is the part that’s never really mentioned in books or movies, how spiritual or mental “gifts” don’t always arrive on our doorsteps in convenient and pretty little packages. Spider bites in reality are simply that, spider bites. There isn’t always a manifesto or a secret kingdom waiting for the return of their magical queen or king to come and set things right. Sometimes there is no snowy wood in the back of a wardrobe, just a sea of messy clothes, and old bras lost in the midst of them. Sometimes, just sometimes the protagonist of the story stumbles through life hoping it all goes away.
I remember the times Ambuya would come to the house when I was a little girl, bearing carrier bags of lush fruits and vegetables from her plot. She would find me glued to the television screen watching videos of my favourite Disney movies on the old, noisy VCR. On one particular visit mama had rented Mulan, and as I sat there bemused by Mushu the red dragon, Ambuya had laughed heartily following the storyline of this rebel Chinese daughter who had smuggled her way into the army by pretending to be a man so she could defend her father’s honour. We both watched, Ambuya in quiet awe and I enamored as any child would be by the magic of Disney movies as Mulan’s grandmother prayed to the family ancestors in the local temple, asking them to keep Mulan safe after she had run away. Something had struck a chord within me. I looked at my grandmother.
“Baby,” she said quietly. “We have ancestors too, just like in your cartoon. We call them vadzimu. And you see that dragon, Mushu.” She laughed. “Sometimes our ancestral spirits can appear to us in the likeness of an animal. It can be a baboon or a lion, or any other animal depending on the family name and their Mutupo.”
And it went on like that, we would watch Disney movies together, my grandmother and I, and hidden within the stories were all these cultural references similar to our own. Exploring the deeper meanings behind them became her way of passing on the baton of knowledge to me without actually stepping on my mother’s toes. I grew older, and read the origin stories of all my favourite Disney characters, soon discovering the fictionalized and sometimes exaggerated elements of the true life details to my TV heroines. Their lives in truth were marked by real tragedy and pervasive loss. The difference between Pocahontas and Mbuya Nehanda, is that the former got a TV adaptation, was glamorized throughout history while the other was captured, beheaded and had her remains transported overseas among 27 other heads as war medals for the British.
Hers was a sad ending in reality and in fiction.
I am twenty eight now. I work at a fast food joint or at least I used to work at a fast food joint. Chicken Inn, the branch sandwiched between the Academy of music and the ZITF centre was my former place of employment. I had been there about six months. ZITF Week brought an influx of new customers from the capital. Businessmen, democrats, politicians and university lecturers, sometimes the occasional climate activist. I had been designated to the drive thru slot. It seemed pretty simple. Take orders and pass those orders back out the window when they were done.
The first order I took in the opening week of trade fair was from a business man in his mid-40s driving a blue Mercedes Benz. A purple rosary hung around his rearview mirror, but his aura did not exude a pious spirit. He was good looking for his age, a silver haired fox with a gold wedding band on his right hand and a gold crucifix peering out from his open shirt collar. I couldn’t help but think of the irony in that, a symbol of suffering being worn around an expensive neck as an accessory to an outfit. I tried to envision Jesus bleeding on a gold cross.
By His stripes we are healed.
The stripes on my uniform are blood red. The stripes on my legs are blood red.
I took the man’s order; 4 boxes by 2 piecer chicken and chips with a can of Spar letta, Cherry plum soft drink. The man’s lips looked like cherry plum, like someone had kissed his mouth and left them stained on purpose. He had come down from Harare for more than just business ventures and exploits. My coworkers were in a steady rhythm, scooping deep fried chicken onto the grill and packing chips into takeaway boxes. His order came through, the cash machine spit out his receipt and displayed on the single sheet of paper was a list of all his promiscuous activities and transgressions.
Name: Samuel Zuva
Village of Origin: Mutare
Current City of residence: Harare
Married, unfaithful and father to 3 children within wedlock.
Number of sugar babies +5
Number of babymamas+2
Spiritual balance= -negative
Danger alert: Inform Mr Zuva not to use the main road leading to the hotel he plans on staying at tonight or he will be involved in a car accident at the intersection between the robots.
I handed him the receipt, with a lump in my throat.
“Sir, are you alright?” I asked watching him skim through the piece of paper.
“Yes, why wouldn’t I be?” he asked in a gruff tone as I handed him the boxes of food.
“Uhm, the receipt. I just want to make sure everything adds up.” I knew from his reaction that the madness had come back. There were only numbers and food items on that receipt, nothing else.
“Yeah, everything’s fine. It says here, the total is 14 US dollars.”
Some people are tasked with throwing bones on a grass mat in order to see the future or travel back into the past of someone’s life. Ambuya sees things with cowrie shells inside of bowls of clear water. She says her paternal ancestors were water spirits. But I, on that day had seen it all. The ancestral spirits had resorted to using technology to get my attention and send their message across.
I stood there, not quite knowing where to begin.
A few days later the businessman would return, armed with an apology, to thank me. He would recount how, on his way to the hotel after an evening marketing conference he had pulled over to the side of the road to have a lengthy argument with his wife on the phone. At the end of that heated phone call he would use the road he had been warned not to use hoping to pick up an escort and come to discover that two kombi drivers had smashed into each other at the intersection in another taxi feud. The space between the two kombis guaranteed that had Mr. Zuva been there a moment earlier, his remains would be compressed like a toasted sandwich between the two metal beasts.
29 April 2017
The headline on Saturday’s newspaper read, “Drive thru Sangoma causes spiritual frenzy in Bulawayo.”
I was asked to return my uniform and name badge to the front office. Shortly after I was dismissed from work for operating under false pretenses on work premises, whatever that means. A long line of cars snaked the circumference of the street all the way from the Coghlan robots to the entry sign of Chicken Inn. I had become something of an anomaly.
I walked home by myself that Saturday afternoon. The sun was a football in the sky and this time I stood as a woman in the centre of the stadium of life. How did one become the goalkeeper of their own destiny? I thought about my girlfriends and how most of them were wives and mothers now, pregnant and flourishing on instagram. I thought about all the nuances of adult life in a world of smartphones, slay queens and twitter and how every girl had gone from chanting “to the left, to the left,” to “Bitch, I scratched out your name and your face,” from Beyoncé’s lemonade.
Ambuya and mama are still bickering. I watch one of the candle flames flicker in the dark and press a finger to the burn mark located on my left wrist. There are a couple of similar scars all over my arms, all of which I have no recollection of how or where I got them.
“Ambuya.” I interject. Silence falls between them. “Ndoda kuenda kumusha nemi. Ndaneta.” My words sit in the air pregnant and heavy. My mother looks at me abashed. “Vimbiso, you know if you leave this house you can’t come back.” It is a statement and not a suggestion.
“I know,” I offer in a defeated tone. “I know.”
“Then don’t do it.”
Vimbiso, my name. It means promise. If I am a promise, surely I have broken myself enough times to fit into the mold of expectation. I have broken myself enough times to know that a calling is not always received by the people around you because we aren’t all connected to the same spiritual network. I have broken myself enough times to know that God is too big for me to understand, too vast to fathom, too multi-faceted to limit to a time or space or context in history. He is outside of our understanding and we orbit fleetingly within the confines of a perceived reality.
Perhaps it’s not so much that we’re dying from a lack of knowledge as it is that we die from knowing too much of the inconsequential, gathering superficial data and logistics to feed into the algorithm of our lives without ever really stopping to replenish the impoverished parts of our souls.
I know that I can never be a Moana or a Mulan but magic lives outside of the cinema, outside of the Marvel Universe. Magic is ordinarily a fact of human life. It is boring and mundane and unremarkable. It happens all around us and in the biological processes of our bodies. In the perspiration of rainclouds and the falling of snow. In bleeding oceans and menstrual cycles.
I cannot claim to be phenomenal. Neither can I claim to be simple. I am not a scientist or an expert on religion. I am only an ordinary woman existing with extraordinary gifts. Isn’t it enough to be just that? Isn’t it enough to wholly accept that being human is as much a physical as it is a spiritual experience, that the two are simply transcendental crossroads at the stream of consciousness?
Does a bird ever take the time to consider that it opposes gravity or does it simply spread its wings, gliding from one destination to the next without stealing a moment to wonder or marvel at the miracle of its own existence?
Maybe the true rebellion is not in the opposition of everything we do not comprehend. Maybe the true rebellion is accepting that we do not need to understand everything to live a meaningful life.
Ambuya and I catch the bus first thing in the morning.
I don’t look back.
Chioniso Tsikisayi is a spoken word poet, writer, singer, and filmmaker from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She is passionate about creative arts and conscious storytelling.
Her work has been published in Brittle Paper, Isele Magazine and Litro Magazine. Her first body of music titled Heaven Is Closer Than You Know was released in November 2020 in collaboration with award-winning media hub Cottage47. She performed at The PiChani (a Pan African lifestyle and networking event for young creatives) as well as at the opening ceremony of the European Film Festival in Bulawayo. She was a finalist for Grand Slam Africa 2021 hosted by Kenya Poetry Slam and Cre8ive Spills and placed third in the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2021. Brittle Paper named her their November Spotlight Artist.