The disappearing act of traditional courtship
Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday
Operation musengabere and running marathons after girls are gone now. The Internet is here. But, there is plenty of room for a guy and a girl to meet naturally and fall in love the way it was meant to be
BACK in the village, when a guy saw a girl he loved, he ran very fast to chase after her. She ran away from him, almost as fast, pretending that falling in love was nowhere near her agenda in life.
And yet, in her heart, she was already in love with the guy.
But when caught, she said “no, no, no” for a very long time.
Maybe on the third or fourth. Just when the guy was beginning to give up hope, she smiled and said, “yes, I love you”.
A girl was expected never to admit to love on the first or second chase.
Later on, the pair went to see the girl’s aunt or her father’s sister, Tete.
Tete asked the guy for a token to show his proclamation to love, nhumbi.
He gave her a knife or a catapult as the pledge of his love to the girl.
Likewise, the girl gave him a handkerchief, a bracelet or a necklace to show her love.
Tete kept both tokens as proof of the promise between the boy and girl.
The affair was well-monitored by Tete on the girl’s side and by Sekuru, the uncle on the boy’s side.
In the end, if the girl happened to get pregnant during the two lovers’ secret time together in the bush or the valleys, she eloped to the boy’s village with Tete’s full knowledge. Then the process of bride price was followed. A woman was worth a lot of cows.
In those days, before independence, my sisters and cousins, including Piri, dreamt that we would grow up and a guy somewhere close by would do a marathon to get one of us.
My grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, said we should always marry someone whose family she had known for a long time, following the age old tradition of marrying among your own, rooranai vematongo.
Mbuya warned us to watch out for poor young men with nothing to their name, vasina chekubata. These guys with no cows, goats or chickens to pay for the bride price were likely to kidnap a woman they loved through an operation called musengabere.
Mbuya used to tell us a story about the kidnapping of her friend around 1900 when they were still living in what became the Charter Estates, during the time when the British South Africa Police under Cecil John Rhodes were settling down to mine and farm Rhodesia.
Mbuya said her friend was secretly in love with a man whose family was known to be the poorest around.
Their granaries were always empty even at harvest time.
So, one day, at sunset, the young man came and hid behind the bushes near the girl’s homestead.
Unsuspecting, the girl took a calabash and rushed to the well to get some water. She did not come back.
The young man grabbed her from behind. She screamed but he clamped his hand over her mouth. Because he was a strong man, he carried her all the way to the river.
Once they got there, he declared his love one more time and said he was a poor man, but that was the only way he could have her.
Then they started walking to his village in the dark. A day later, he sent a go-between or munyai, to tell the girl’s family that he had carried operation musengabere out of love.
He was going to look for the bride price. In the meantime, she was now his wife forever. That is how Mbuya’s friend met the man who became her husband.
“What if the girl did not like the man?” we asked Mbuya. “Could she go back to her village?”
“No. She could not go back,” Mbuya said. “After one night away from home, we will say to a girl, ‘go back to where you spent last night. You are spoilt.’
“Nobody wanted you in case you have lost your virginity.”
That story about musengabere always made us shiver with fear. We saw every man whose parents had no cows as a potential kidnapper.
And yet, musengabere, by the time we were growing up, was very rare.
Apart from the speed often required from guys during courtship, finding romance in the village was easy.
You could go looking for firewood and on the way there, you met a young man looking after his cattle or on a mission to massacre birds with his catapult or check his traps for mice.
He declared his love to you.
After the liberation war, we travelled on the village bus to town and there was always a good chance of meeting a boy who fell in love with you immediately on that bus.
But those days are gone now and there are few places to meet potential lovers. We no longer travel on the buses as much as we did.
This has changed traditional courtship.
“If only a big strong man could chase me through the forests just once and I would pretend not to like him,” Piri said, wistfully. She sat on the far right sofa in the lounge room enjoying some beers in my house.
This is how she spends some of her Sunday afternoons, drinking beer in company or without.
“Tete, it is easy to find romance these days. You advertise a profile of yourself on a dating website through the Internet,” said Shamiso, sitting at my computer, without permission.
Shamiso is my niece, the one who is married to Philemon and they have a baby called Prince. Sometimes they come visit me from Chitungwiza and Piri always comes along too. One time I saw them looking at an Internet site and they quickly closed it when I walked into the room. They think I do not know that the Internet has no respect for people’s eyes at all.
It will show you what you ask for, even people who are quite indecent and behaving in a very unbecoming manner.
“Tete Piri, you are still looking for love, handiti?” said Shamiso, coming over to sit on the sofa next to Piri.
“Why do you ask such a stupid question? If I had love, would I be drinking alone like this? Would I be spending so much time going back and forth between the village and city most weekends?” said Piri, looking annoyed, as if she did not enjoy the village trips that we do together so often.
“I can help you find a man on the Internet,” Shamiso said, grinning, looking at me mischievously.
“Move with the times, Tete. These days, you can simply go on the Internet and join a dating site.”
Then she leapt to the other side of the room to grab my laptop. She placed it on Piri’s lap and opened a dating web page where Piri could register to find a man. Piri looked at the photos of men and women saying who they are and what sort of lover they were looking for.
“Are these real people?” Piri asked.
“We all laughed and Philemon said yes, these were real people and for a fee, Piri could have her picture on that web page too. Someone, in this wide world, was bound to see the photo and contact her seeking love.
“So can this computer help a man or a woman to find each other for love and get married?” Piri asked.
“You tell the computer what to do and it can match you with someone with similar interests to yours.
“The Internet is a good tool to help people meet one another,” I said, adding that traditional methods of meeting a man or a woman are beginning to fail us because we no longer live in the village nor do we know each other’s families the way it used to be like.
The places to meet are limited. So technology has stepped in to influence the way we meet and fall in love. Dating sites are becoming very popular in helping individuals find their romantic partners.
“So, Tete Piri, describe the ideal man you are looking for,” Shamiso said, getting ready to write on a piece of paper. Philemon was going to type that on the Zimbabwe dating website.
Shamiso said Tete Piri was dressing and acting like she was educated and classy, so she should target single men with a big wallet, a car and a house. “Such men do not exist,” said Philemon. “If they do, they are married.
“Tete should mention that she is open to being a second wife.” Piri ignored them.
“Have you seen this Internet business romance working?” Piri asked me. Since I did not know anyone who met someone on the Internet and got married, I told her that this was a new technology tool helping people to meet friends and lovers.
“But we must be very careful on how to use Internet dating.
I knew stories of romance seekers who met on the Internet, fell in love and sent lots of money to their “new lovers” before meeting each other in person.
Many women in Europe, Australia and other places have lost thousands of dollars to unscrupulous young men who pretend to be desperately in love with the single lonely women.
Operation musengabere and running marathons after girls are gone now. The Internet is here. But, there is plenty of room for a guy and a girl to meet naturally and fall in love the way it was meant to be.
Love can still arrive from behind the bush when taking a walk, or along the supermarket aisle, in a kombi, in church or in a bar. Romance brings surprise when it comes unplanned. It is pleasurable to feel when it happens.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is CEO of Rio Zim Foundation. She writes in her personal capacity.