Eppel, a white Zimbabwean writer, is the author of several satirical novels, including the M-Net Award-winning DGG Berry’s “The Great North Road”, and several batches of lyrical poetry collected in a number of published volumes.
When I was a boy, my father said to me, “Son, don’t judge people who haven’t had your advantages in life. Privilege entails responsibility. How do the Frogs put it…?”
Life is not fair.
I took my father’s advice and grew into a good listener. People came to me with their stories because they knew I wouldn’t interrupt them with criticism or recommendation – up to a point, I hasten to add.
I returned to Zimbabwe shortly after Independence. My peripheral involvement with the military wing of the African National Congress gave me access to some very important people in the new dispensation, not that I ever took advantage of this; but it gave me a sense of belonging, which was denied to… dare I call him my friend… Bruce Leatherboy. If I was hot for the Revolution, and the recalcitrant “Rhodies” were cold for the Revolution, Bruce Leatherboy was lukewarm. My instinct was to despise him for this, but there was something about him, something gentle rather than weak, humble rather than abject, which whispered to me from my father’s grave that I should suppress my instinct, and listen.
And I’m glad I listened because Bruce Leatherboy’s story, which this manuscript records, is also my story, my conversion from righteousness to healthy scepticism. As Bruce was fond of quoting: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” I would go further and say the creeds.
I come from a wealthy middle-class family who made their money in transport. My great grandfather, Mungo, of Scottish descent, arrived in Matabeleland a few months ahead of the first Pioneer column. With money he’d earned in the diamond diggings of Kimberly, he purchased sixteen young oxen and a half-covered donkey wagon. In Bulawayo, the railhead at that time, he hired a Basuto driver with a thirty foot whip and the heart of a lion, and began his transport business. His first loads were light: foodstuffs, parcels of millinery… nothing over three thousand pounds; but as his business grew he acquired proper ox wagons and many more oxen to pull them. Before long he was transporting boilers weighing as much as eight thousand pounds.
Because he operated almost exclusively in the low-veldt, my great grandfather’s business survived the Rinderpest; and he was fortunate enough to sell it just before the arrival of African Coast Fever, introduced by imported Australian cows via the port of Beira. This terrible tick borne disease, coupled with the expanding railway line, put paid to the road transport business, until the invention of the petrol-driven engine.
He sank his profits into a butcher’s, a baker’s, and, no, not a candlestick maker’s – a bottle store. When my grandfather, James, took over, he, James, exploded into hotels. My father, Fergus, who inherited the business, was wise enough, shortly after Independence in 1980, to invite the government to partner him, with a view to them taking over almost entirely, once he had stashed enough money in offshore accounts all over the world to ensure that he and his family would never want for a solid middle-class standard of living.
When my father died, of prostate cancer, he left my mother, Edith, with the purse strings, and me, an only child, with one of his residential hotels. The remainder of his business concerns were, over a period of a decade, systematically asset-stripped by powerful individuals in the ruling party. Today they are moribund.
My hotel, on the other hand, is flourishing, thanks to the steady stream of well-meaning NGOs who can’t find work in their own countries, and whose governments are only too pleased to pack them off, with prodigious grants and brand new off-road double cabs, to the so-called developing countries where they run workshops, write proposals, and light fires.
My hotel, re-named Nehanda Hollows, is situated in the leafy suburb of… wait for it… Suburbs. I have a very good borehole so my two and a half acres is one splendid garden. I grow sufficient fruit and vegetables to provide for my guests as well as my staff of twenty or so workers. Some of them reside on the property and are in great demand by the residents. More of that later.
Nehanda Hollows, previously Cheltenham Place, consists of nine rooms all with en-suite bathrooms equipped with the best water softener systems in the world. Its Edwardian façade resembles Antrim House in Wellington, New Zealand. The third storey is a single tower with a mansard roof, and that is where I live with my cat, Jones, and my partner, Rumbi. The second storey consists of four rooms with a common balcony, while the ground floor, with a veranda on three sides, is a complex of four rooms, a reception area, a dining room and a kitchen. The central entryway, leading up to the veranda, comprises ten semi-circular steps with outwardly curving stone balustrades, upon which, on either side, lions couchant, carved from sandstone, welcome residents and visitors alike. The veranda floor is polished red cement; all the other floors are Oregon pine.
Let me introduce you to my paying guests. On the second floor, in the room directly facing the Museum of Natural History, someone we have already met: Bruce Leatherboy; next door to him, retired German academic, and world authority on Zimbabwean writer, Tepuka Paipi: Dr Dr Gundel Erregung; on the side facing Heyman Road, opposite Bruce’s room, two British girls, Shacki Downs and Robe Conrady, who work for an NGO that supports the widows of national heroes; and opposite Dr Dr Erregung’s room, Rolind Magaka, suspected CIO operative, suspected child trafficker, suspected dealer in blood diamonds, but a damn good tenant.
The ground floor has four rooms, two on either side of the spacious reception area and lounge. Beyond them, at the back of the hotel, are the kitchen and dining room. Room 1, to the left of the main entrance, is occupied by a teacher from a private school, who has the uncanny ability to give individual tuition to five students simultaneously: one on the veranda, one in the garden, one in the reception lounge, one in his room, and one in his bathroom. He teaches mathematics and his name is Titus Umbumbulu-Brown. His neighbour, in room 2, is a young Canadian idealist called Cherry Snapp, whose NGO supports her efforts to bolster the local Affirmative Action Group. Room 4, to the right of the main entrance, is the abode of Pearly Gates Svorenyama. She manages an Irish NGO, dedicated to supporting the Girl Child. I’m honoured to say that she will be holding her next Rural Beauty Pageant on the grounds of my hotel. Finally, the mysterious Room 3! It is almost never occupied but someone, somewhere, is paying the rent. Suits me, suits my chambermaids, Miriam and Nomsa. What a juicy pair of heart-shaped backsides to suit a job that requires so much bending-over!
I noticed that Bruce had failed to attend dinner, once again, and we were having his favourite: bangers and mash followed by sherry trifle. Emeritus Professor Erregung was holding the floor with an anecdote about how she and Tepuka Paipi had made love on a green bench in Cecil Square, Harare, in full view of a curious public. “It vos mit rain pouring, but undaunted, ve performed our love-trusts: vite engaging in harmony mit black; European mit African. Oh dose vere da days! Tepi’s typewriter into the mud fell. Papers, papers all over. Mein Gott ve showed dose fascist bastards. Haf you all heard da poem he dedicated to me?”
We had, many times. She had even printed off copies for us. Here it is:
Air of my lung
Is the prick
Of desire, like stars
Upon my incredible face
Retching motor cars
Your tender fingers lace
My being. Nights to remember
Great Zimbabwe, Berlin
Sealed with a sigh, a grin.
She explained to us that “lung” did not strictly rhyme with her name, but that the great writer couldn’t find an English word to rhyme with “goonk”.
In her room, the professor had erected a shrine to Paipi. There was a blown up sepia photograph of the beautiful young man with his dreadlocks and his wide-spaced eyes surrounded by cuttings from newspapers and magazines about his exploits on and off the page. Surrounding the cuttings were pictures of many of his lovers, all white, mostly blonde, mostly Teutonic. Surrounding these pictures were quotations from the writer’s oeuvre, which included poems, novels, plays, and short stories. A few of these I could recall: “No-fucking-body tells me what I can write and what I can’t write”; “They say I am ashamed of being black; well, the cunts are wrong; I’m ashamed of being human”; “Blood is stickier than water”.
The residents at Nehanda Hollows had a choice of eating at the large communal table near the kitchen, or privately at any of the smaller tables scattered around. This way they could suit their moods. Most of them preferred the convivial atmosphere of the large table, where I always sat. The one exception was Cherry Snapp who almost never graced us with her company, but preferred to be on her own at the most secluded table, dreaming up ways of helping her comrades take over white and Indian businesses before moving on to their homes. Little did I know, then, what she had in store for me.
“Another banger, Professor?”
“Thank you, mein Schatz.” She skewered it with her fork and held it up to the light before fellating it with toothless gums. “Ah, dose ver da days!”
They were indeed, the post-war decade. Where did it all go wrong? After dinner I bade good night to my guests, and as I ascended the creaking stairs I wondered how Rumbi was getting on at her embroidery club in Killarney. She seemed to spend more time there than with me, these days, and I was a little jealous of it. She was convinced that telling their stories in stitches provided excellent therapy for the psychologically damaged, and her club was unusual: the pupils were all male delinquents. In return for her expertise they provided her with sperm for ritual purposes. Rumbi made a small fortune selling the stuff to so-called witch doctors all over Southern Africa.
I was surprised to see Bruce leaning over the balcony outside his room, staring into the darkness. I decided to call to him but changed my mind when I saw him stretch his arms in an anguished gesture towards the Museum of Natural History. He was trembling.
By the way, my name is Dick. No jokes, please! The day after Bruce’s strange behaviour I collared him in the garden moping over my snap dragons. I love flowers; I like to think of them as stylized vulvas, messy with nectar and pollen; and a range of scents: some attracting Lepidoptera, some wasps, some flies. I showed him how to make the dragons snap by using finger and thumb to squeeze, gently, the funnel of the flower. The oaf gaped at the gape.
“What’s troubling you, old man?” I asked, putting my arm around his drooping shoulders.
“You haven’t been down to dinner the entire week. You’ve stopped wearing your gorgeous gold tie with the Paisley pattern. When last did you have those trousers dry-cleaned? Are you depressed?”
“It’s the stuffed animals in the museum. I can’t bear it. And they are being trafficked-”
“Yes, trafficked. You see them all over town: at private parties, official functions, political rallies…. It’s heart-breaking, Dick. And they all have this dumb expression on their faces as if- “
“As if they’ve been on Prozac since Coffin-Grey mounted them?”
“Yes, kind of zonked out. Glassy-eyed.”
“And now they’re starting to lose body parts. You should have seen this zebra at an Africa Day function in the Trade Fair grounds. Tail gone, ears gone, muzzle gone…”
“I didn’t check there. They no longer bother to return them to the museum, where they shouldn’t be, anyhow. Dick, how can we talk of freedom from colonial oppression when these first inhabitants… before the Bushmen even… are imprisoned in a round glass cage to be gawped at? Do you understand what I’m getting at, Dick?”
“Titus invited me to his school’s Open Day, and what’s the first thing I see, smack bang in front of the Chapel? A black rhino with its horn missing!”
“Well, the school is called Black Rhino High.”
“That’s beside the point. This animal was “borrowed” from the museum, and as far as I know, it hasn’t been returned. Honestly, Dick, it makes my blood boil to witness the rampant animalism in this town.”
“Yes, discrimination against animals.”
“You’ll have to find another word for it, Brucie. ‘Animalism’ means the opposite of what you intend it to mean. It’s the belief that humans are not superior to other animals.”
“But what about ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘ageism’…?”
“English is a tricky language. ‘Flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ mean the same thing. The true negative is ‘non-flammable’.”
“Well then, what about ‘non-animalism’?”
“Cumbersome. Besides humans are also animals. We also breathe. How about, ‘wild mammalism’?”
“But they also stuff birds, and reptiles. You should see the black mamba!”
“Okay, what about… um… ‘non-human creaturism’?”
“Now who’s being cumbersome?”
“Well, it’s the best I can do.”
“Don’t get shirty, old man. I’ll use it. Thank you.” He was snapping dragons as he spoke and I had to restrain him. “Look, Dick, I have a plan. I’m going to liberate all the stuffed animals in the museum, return them to their natural habitat, free them from the yoke of oppression, of… er… non-human creaturism. Do you follow my reasoning?”
“There’s nothing reasonable about it, Bruce. It’s not a plan, it’s a dream. What do you mean by natural habitat?”
“The bush, of course – the land, their land, land that was invaded, first by the Bushmen, then by the Shona, then by the Matabele, then by… er… our people, now by the Chinese.”
“The Bushmen were always here, Brucie.”
My head gardener, Johnson, trimming a bougainvillea, which was busy colonising one of my precious indigenous trees, was close enough to overhear our conversation. He clicked his tongue at the word “Chinese”, and muttered “Zhing zhong.” Johnson was leader of my hotel’s resident marimba band. My late father had taught him a dozen Scottish tunes with which he and his band regaled guests and visitors every Friday evening. Johnson’s favourite was “I love a lassie”, a sentiment he would frequently actualise underneath the spreading Nyala berry tree, which divided the servants’ quarters from the hotel. His “lassies” weren’t only Scottish, mind you! Johnson’s mortar, so to speak, had pounded pestles far and wide, Walloons not excluded. A vocal anti-feminist, Johnson did not realise the extent to which he benefited from female liberation. His excesses resulted in an extraordinary number of babies, which he hired out to girls so that they could claim maintenance from their boyfriends.
Yes, every Friday evening we have a braai (weather permitting) at a circular clearing in the garden, which I like to call The Amphitheatre. This coming Friday we are going to hold a rural beauty pageant at that venue. I expect many politicians, businessmen and NGO representatives to attend. They can’t seem to get enough rural stink. A panel of three judges, one of them an actual Judge, will decide on this year’s Miss Rural Zimbabwe. Unfortunately one of the other judges, a retired army general, was assassinated last week. He has been replaced by Indigenous Businessman of the year – he asset-stripped three parastatals, two private businesses, and eleven commercial farms in a matter of months – Bodayshis Nhafu. Mystery surrounds the third judge. He will be spending the night in Room 3!