I met Ernest 18 years ago. He was standing under the African sun with his feet on the African earth.
He was standing with a hoe in a patch of corn by the side of this house on Airport Road in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
He was standing almost as still as a statue, moving ever so slowly, lifting the hoe with infinite effort and letting it fall at the base of the row to break up a clod.
The rainy season begins in October and I met him in February when the corn was man-high. That was in 1997.
Would he remember me 18 years later? Of course he would -- I remember him, don't I? so he must remember me. I was the kiwa who came out to the garden to join him -- not to watch him, but to join him. Not that I picked up a hoe and worked along side, but I was with him in the way that two men of common labor are with each other in silcnce.
Is he married now? Did some plain-looking garden girl look him over and say he'll do. After all, he works, he has a position, he's not a bum. He's a quiet man and steady -- a girl could do worse than to marry this garden boy.
He got drunk one night at the beer hall, and his rage, simmering in him for years because of his lowly position, all come rushing to his head in red-hot anger. After so many years of bumbling, he shouted. He stood up and pitched over the table and began fighting anyone near him, until they wrestled him to the ground and the police came and took him to the tank and beat him.
Ernest didn't lose his position at the house on Airport Road. The mistress understood how things were with him and she was kind. He stayed away from the beer hall after that raging night and went back to tending the corn patch.
I suppose he is still in Bulawayo and still working like this in a patch of corn somewhere, near to fifty in age now, with several children and grandchildren, and no better and no worse than when I met him in 1997 at the house on Airport Road.
Maybe they don't call him a garden boy anymore . One hopes this occupation has been dignified in Africa.
Note. Kiwa means fig in the language of Ndebele and Shona people. A fig is pale pink on the inside, so a white man is sometimes called a kiwa.....this is a friendly nickname.
Note on Corn. Corn was brought to Africa from America by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. Corn farming quickly spread across the continent because of its superior yields, replacing native grains such as millet. Cornmeal is now the staple of most African diets. In Zimbabwe, every farmer and every gardener plants corn in late October, hoping for enough rain to bring in a good crop. When the rains do come, people eat well and the farmers make money. Some years the rains do not come, and there might be hunger and privation.