It’s quite terrifying, I’ve discovered, writing a memoir, especially as I’m attempting to write it in the form of prose poetry. A concern is crossing a line in terms of family loyalty. How to accommodate their right to privacy while telling my own story? One way, of course, is to change almost all the names. I’m also keeping the dateline vague. Wish me luck!
Since we arrived in Harare, I’ve been strongly affected by olfactory impressions – eucalyptus trees, yesterday today and tomorrow bushes, jasmine, cut grass, strong whiffs of homemade roll ups, the smell of water from sprinklers onto dry red earth, the sadza sweat of labourers working in the new organic vegetable and herb plot. The changes, particularly the light here, mean that I’m getting up at 6am and diving into the pool, so appreciative that I have this luxury. Going to bed earlier. Getting back into the African rhythm of life.
As well as a trip home to see my family, this is a research visit, courtesy of a literature bursary from the Arts Council. I was hoping to have conversations with my father to stimulate ideas for my project, but his health has deteriorated dramatically since my last trip. He’s very frail, permanently bed-ridden now and too weak to speak. Instead, I’m facing thoughts of his approaching death, at a time when I’m writing about my childhood, and memories of a very different man. How to reconcile my impressions of my father then, with the man I see in front of me now? How is the current situation going to impact on the outcome of my story?
And now that my planned research with my father will not take place, how best to use my time here, from a research point of view?
Michael and I drove out to Ngomokurira one afternoon, somewhere I have never been, as we usually went to Domboshawa, a far smaller, but similar place, half an hour closer to the city.
Ngomokurira is much more dramatic.
Ngomokurira – the word ngomo is Shona for rocky outcrop – is a colossal, sheer rock-face, the curves softened by millennia, so it has an almost feminine look, in spite of its monumental presence. We drove along potholed tar roads, until even the tar ran out, and the bustling traffic, commuter kombis, handcarts, roadside stalls selling electronics, tomatoes, mobile phone cards and car parts gave way to wandering horned cows, children running, propelling a solitary bicycle wheel, women cultivating vegetable plots and beautiful rondavels:
And all the time, Ngomokurira towered in front of us, its granite presence accepted as part of the landscape by everyone else, but astonishing for us.
At a dilapidated thatched building, we paid our entrance fee – $5. Just follow the track, we were told, and the white arrows. One path will take you to the rock paintings. The other one will take you to the cave. And off we went.
The crackling heat of the afternoon, the cicadas, occasional birds, trees rustling, were all the sounds we heard. Up and up we climbed, and every now and then – so unfit! – I clutched on to a thorn tree to get my breath. Sometimes, as I scrabbled up the dusty track, I’d skid and gasp, fearful of tumbling onto stones and thorns. Michael was soon far ahead of me. Looking up at the looming rock, I started thinking of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and hurried after him.
At one fairly level point, I looked away down towards a stream, and there was a half-stripped boy, about to take a dip. He looked up sharply – had he sensed me? – and we made eye contact. Embarrassed, I continued on. Michael had by now disappeared. I glanced back, and saw that the boy was still staring at me. Would he alert others to my solitary presence, a white woman? I felt incensed at Michael for leaving me on my own. Where was he?
I came to a beacon: a column of rocks, about chest high. The arrows pointed two ways now, and I didn’t know which way Michael had gone. I opted for the rock paintings. The trees became more lush and around a bend, I came upon the stream again, widening into a pool, surrounded by vegetation. For some reason, the enchanting scene made me think of Keats, or Wordsworth. After the scorching heat, it was an oasis, and I sank to the ground, and wondered whether to ignore the probable presence of bilharzia and dive in. First, I lay back on the warm rock and stared up at the blue blue sky, a passing falcon. I heard a click behind me. Michael, taking a photo of the the sheer rock-face and the trees reflected in the water:
We approached the ngomo together. The colours were amazing: rose-pink, grey, white and black, in waves. The rock paintings, of cattle, horses, various antelope, and humans, were obviously done at different times or by different artists, some more sophisticated than others. We could go right up and touch them. No one around, nothing to protect them from the blazing heat. There was an incredible atmosphere. I had a feeling that it was probably a sacred site, a burial site.
We spent a little while there, but as the afternoon was drawing on, and we knew darkness would be sudden when it came, we carried on to the cave. For the second time, I became aware of the presence of others, away in the distance. A young couple.
Again, Michael took off ahead of me, like a goat. Eventually, he was a silhouette on the horizon, standing at the pinnacle of the rock, looking down at me. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and kept stopping to sit, to take in the atmosphere. No one else around. Well, except for many scurrying lizards, startlingly coloured: iridescent blues and oranges.
I thought about snakes, and made a lot of noise as I moved, to give them advance warning of my approach. Eventually, I caught up to him, as he was on the way back.
–Can’t get to the cave, he said. It’s down a sheer cliff. And we’re running out of time.
I was greatly relieved. We set off at a pace. After a while, I heard footsteps behind us, and looked around. The couple were catching up to us. We paused to let them pass, but they paused too, and exchanged comments about the heat. Then he – Australian by his accent – asked if we could give them a lift back to Harare. They’d come here by commuter bus.
We headed back to the hut together, chatting. He had been to Peru and Bolivia and Mozambique. She was Shona, and had met him a few years ago, through NGO work. At the base of the rock, two young children approached us with yellow enamel dishes filled with mujanges, and sugar fruit. We bought some, and on the way home, ate them.
No falls. No attacks. No snakes. No police roadblocks on the way home. No hitchhiker horrors. They were lovely.
Ngomokurira is magnificent.
Why oh why do I always anticipate the worst?
The trip has reinforced something I had suspected about myself.
That will have to be incorporated into my story.
Meanwhile, there is my father. I head to his room, heart in mouth, and breathe a sigh when I see his chest lifting. The window is open, the white gauze inner curtain drifting slightly in the breeze. Beside his bed, a bowl of scented roses. His eyes are closed, but he opens them slowly, turns to the door and slightly lifts his thin, quavering hand. I’m glad I have an adventure to share with him.