Balancing knowledge from our past
Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
Each day, we rely on any knowledge coming from everywhere through various social media. At times, we are forced to select whether the medicines thrown in our faces outside supermarkets can do us good or do us harm.
It’s Friday late afternoon outside a very busy supermarket in Harare. I am deliberating if I should buy tomatoes in the shop or from the women who always sit here day after day selling exactly the same vegetables. A packet of tomatoes or onions is one dollar each. Avocados are two for a dollar.
The three women sitting on small stool are busy talking to the guys selling airtime and other gadgets. As usual, I talk to the market women about the weather, the price of electricity, children or anything. There is no hurry to get anywhere on a Friday late afternoon. The trip to the village with my cousin Piri only happens early on Saturdays.
Standing next to the women selling vegetables are two young men selling airtime. Each time I stop here, I notice one other woman in her late 30’s standing. She always has a pink jacket tied around her waistline. She often wears a long skirt and black tennis shoes. Her hair is nicely plaited and tied at the back. She is a big buxom woman with a beautiful flawless black skin.
She carries a cream handbag, always. The airtime boys call her “aunt”.
This woman does not sell vegetables or anything. But she often just stands here talking and laughing with the other sellers and airtime boys.
As we stand there, doing nothing, we see a man park his nice four 4WD black double cab. It looks brand new. He is wearing black jeans and a tight red T-shirt. His biceps bulge out of his red T-shirt. This guy looks like he goes to the gym and he lifts weights. If he is bald, you would not be able to tell because this man’s head is totally shaved and he has a small moustache. He has a little belly showing. Overall, this man looks fit. I judge him to be around 45 years of age or maybe more. I notice this because there is no harm in looking. This is a public place.
The woman with the cream handbag sees the man in the red T-shirt. She quickly fishes out a small packet from her handbag and goes straight for the man as he walks from his nice car. She thrusts the packet in his face and says something to him. The man in the red T-shirt looks at her for a moment and says, “What?” She repeats her statement and I only catch the words to do with ‘sex’ and helping masculine power return to normal. The man in the red T-shirt angrily bursts out, “Hazvishande izvi!” meaning, that does not work. Then he briskly walks away. The woman follows him a little and then she puts her small packet in the handbag and comes back to us. She says, “Ah, how can he say that without having tried the medicine? Lack of knowledge is dangerous.”
“But why did he get so angry?” I ask. The young man selling airtime turns to me and everyone else and says, “The man has been offended twice in just a few seconds.” Then the young man bends over laughing, jumping up and down. “How?” I ask.
“Ah, Tete, can’t you see? Since when do women on the street offer you medicine for that kind of business? And what has this aunt seen in such a strong man that she should offer him stuff made in China?”
“Taura zvako,” says the older woman on the far end of the vegetable stall. She says people should know that there is a place to talk about private business and not in an open space like this. How many times has she told the woman who sells the medicine for men that this was no place to sell or to give knowledge on such matters? Then is a whole argument with others saying we can not rely on information from our past any more. That is all gone. Some of us must look to new places to get Western medicine and even Chinese herbs for health and knowledge.
I collect my tomatoes and walk back to the car thinking about the man in the red T-shirt. He looked really offended. In the past, if he needed such assistance, he would have got it from an elder or someone back in the village. Where do we get such knowledge now if we need it?
Back in the colonial days, long before independence, our motto at St Columbus Primary School was: Knowledge is Power. We recited it each morning at assembly as we walked barefoot in single file into the classrooms. My father liked the motto so much that he used the red ink from the mubvamaropa tree to inscribe the words on the back of the goatskin mats we carried to school. We sat on the mats and chorused the motto out loud.
Every day at school we were taught that Western civilisation was the future and without it, we would remain in darkness, forever ignorant and primitive. Civilisation, English, Christianity, good manners, cleanliness, humility, respect and love were all part of knowledge. Outside these values, there was no other knowledge and no other wisdom to strive for. Our teachers dressed in suits and ties, just like the European native administrators and the white men who came to check the health of our cattle at the dip tank.
At home, in the village compound, my grandmother Mbuya VaMandirowesa did not pay any attention at all to what we were learning at school. Like most elders in the village, my grandmother did not read but she carried many stories in her memory. Each story had a moral or educational message. It was not just a story. We sat there, wide-eyed as she took us away many miles back in time. Throughout the story telling, she paused and we answered in agreement, “Dzepfunde”, waiting for the moment when she would sing. We got up and danced to the song with the rhythm of sadness or joy, depending on the story. Sometimes she would tell a whole story in metaphors, proverbs and riddles only.
We learnt a lot about life, love, health and out culture from the stories she told..
Mbuya used to rule the village. She was a tall and formidable woman. With her back bent a little, she often walked with hands clasped behind her back. Her face had a deep dark brown colour. On each of her cheek bones were two small black tattoo lines, nyora, and the traditional marks of beauty. Her whole stomach was covered with these various patterns of beautiful nyora.
One time Mbuya told us that during her youth, every girl prepared to get the intricate nyora patterns on her stomach and sometimes on her breasts. The cuts bled and the tattooist rubbed black crushed charcoal paste into each bleeding cut to stop infection and to give the nyora line its deep permanent black colour.
The girl would then give the tattooist a basket of ground millet as token of gratitude for the nyora. It gave men pleasure to look at nyora and feel the uneven stomach. At marriage, nyora was enhanced by several colourful rolls of waistline beads meant to be seen only by the husband. In Mbuya’s days, a girl without nyora all over her stomach was not considered beautiful.
Down at the river only women were allowed at the bathing place, pachigezero. Mbuya, and all the village aunts, vanatete, guided us through the school for teenage girls. They instilled in us the knowledge of womanhood. After the lessons, we swam in the river while our clothes hung on the tree branches to dry. We played and sang garwe herisadza; crocodile here is your sadza. One person was the crocodile and everyone else teased ‘her’ pretending to give her sadza. The crocodile danced and sang ‘swederera’, get closer, until she pounced on one of us and ran away to ‘eat’ her. We learnt to swim that way, running away from the ‘crocodile.’
Naked, we did cartwheels in the river sand. Then we sang and danced on the rocks, swam, rolled in the river sand and jumped in the water many times. We scrubbed and massaged each other’s backs with stones and compared the sizes of our budding breasts. We took nyungururwi — the black river insects from the water and got them to bite our nipples. The bites were sharp and painful. They would make our breasts grow big quickly. Mbuya said the more pain we felt, the bigger the breasts would become. Breasts were good for future breastfeeding, nothing else. Then river school for girls came to an end too soon. Boarding school and more Western education took over.
As we made the journey from the village, we gradually lost the knowledge and wisdom once provided by elders through storytelling and daily life activities.
Most of our village systems of knowledge are gone forever. Each day, we rely on any knowledge coming from everywhere through various social media. At times, we are forced to select whether the medicines thrown in our faces outside supermarkets can do us good or do us harm.
If only we could celebrate and balance easily our past village knowledge with the present.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is the CEO of Rio Zim Foundation. She writes in her personal capacity.