Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Love and Marriage

By Fred Owens

(we are continuing the African story as a public service. This story gives you something to think about besides the virus)

Happy Saint Patrick's Day. First a note about drinking beer.  The shebeen is an Irish-Gaelic word denoting an illegal private drinking establishment, often found in Ireland, but just as often found in Zimbabwe and South Africa. So, as I was to learn about Precious's family, her Aunt Margie ran a shebeen in her modest home in Luveve, selling beers from her cooler to local gentlemen who sat in couches in her living room in the evening. I was never there in the evening. That neighborhood was much safer than any place in Johannesburg, but still, being the lone white man in those parts, and fairly ignorant to boot, I always departed before sundown.

As we finished up the last chapter of this story, I told Precious I wanted to meet her family. This was out of curiosity, but also my declaration of a more serious intention. She was already ahead of me in seeing a joint future for the two of us. After all, we had been living together for almost a week. . She said, "Aunt Janet and Aunt Winnie are coming tomorrow. You can meet them."

That was fine with me, but later I wondered about how things got done among African people who don't have phones. How did Precious get a message to her two aunties, that she had a live white gentleman on her hands and he needed to be looked over? She had no phone. The aunties lived in Lobengula and had no phone, and not near to Luveve where lived Aunt Margie, and not near to Entumbane where lived Mister T, which is what everybody called her father. How did any of these relatives know about me? None of them had phones.

Like so many other questions I had about African culture, I got no answer, no explanation of how things worked.. I just said Hey, that's fine. I was going to show the aunties a good time, that part I understood. The aunties liked cold beer, I didn't have to ask about that. They probably liked generous portions of fried chicken. And to impress them I would rent a nice car for the day. We could drive out to Matopos National Park, not one hour out of town. Matopos has the fabulous rock formations and it is a tourist wonder.

The aunties came the next day. Winnie was stout, Janet was small and thin. Winnie had her head shaved, being in mourning for a lost husband. Janet was a spark plug, a live wire. She had the most dazzling smile I have ever seen. Winnie played the sidekick. Janet was the African diva, she had her hair woven in intricate braids. They were both about forty, not too much older than Precious. They wore modest dresses as most women in Zimbabwe did. Precious some times wore jeans to indicate her independent status, but she also wore dresses.

Janet had a husband somewhere. She owned a bottle store -- a general store, but called a bottle store for the beer sold there. The store was in Blantyre in Malawi. Blantyre in Scotland was the birth place and home of the great missionary David Livingstone who gave his life for love of African people. Janet's store had a grinding mill for local farmers to bring their shelled hard corn to grind into cornmeal. Precious told me all that. This was the Malawi branch of the Mataka family. Mataka was Precious's last name. One of her last names. She had several identities. My trick was to never try to figure it out or to ask questions. I saw what I saw and I heard what I heard. And I never asked the really dumb questions  -- the dumbest one of all questions was the famous bus question. Go to Africa and try this when you see people standing by the side of the road waiting for the bus. Some sitting, some standing. Relaxed. "Sir, Excuse me. When does the bus get here?" Try asking that question and you will get the blank look and the 500-mile stare. The bus gets here when it gets here and you're either on the bus or you're not on the bus. This is Africa. If this frustrates you then you will not like being in Africa.

So we drove around the spectacular rock formations of Matopos, and the aunties drank their beer, and they engaged in conversation with Precious in Ndbele. It became riotous and loud with laughter. They were very happy. I just drove around. This was her family. I was invited to belong to this family. I had to think about that.

Ndebele is a dialect of Zulu, or a separate language, depending on who you ask. It has some unusual click sounds that are very hard to imitate. Like you say amacimbe meaning eggs. Only the "c" is made like spitting into the wind. Native speakers do this easily, Learners are a source of much laughter. I often attempted phrases in Ndebele and was received with gales of laughter. It would come out like "I'm going to wash the goat." When I
meant to say I'm going to the store.

Damned difficult language. Fortunately English, thanks to Cecil Rhodes, is the language of education and government in Zimbabwe and everybody speaks it.

Status ranking. I learned by observation and by not asking questions. If I asked questions they would just tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. So here is the pecking order, as far as I could determine. Shona is the dominant tribe and the majority of the population in Zimbabwe. Ndebele is the minority tribe and less favored. Underneath that and lower are the migrants from Malawi, such as Precious and her family. Here are examples  -- I did my banking at Barclays, the English international bank with a branch in Bulawayo, which is the center of Ndebele territory. But the manager, named Mubvumbi, was a Shona man. He knew nothing about banking, but he occupied a spacious office at the bank. It was a political appointment, because the Shona people control things, and the Ndebele people are subordinate to them. Underneath the Ndbele people are the immigrants from Malawi. Which is why some members of the Mataka family changed their last name, to fit in, to not being singled out as Malawians. So Precious was Precious Mataka to her family, but was legally named Precious Sibanda for official purposes. Mataka is a Malawi name that everyone recognizes. But Sibanda is Ndebele and as common is Smith or Jones. It gets more complicated, but I think we've had enough anthropology for today.

But wait, there are three more groups. On top and highest up are the white people, the remnants of old Rhodesia who had no political power since the revolution, but controlled the economy and managed the farm land. Under the white people were the Indians, a merchant class, who ran the grocery stores and other retail places. Nobody like the Indians. Precious's Uncle Ronnie worked at one of their stores. "Those Indians are too harsh. They don't pay him anything, " Precious said about Uncle Ronnie's Indian bosses. Underneath the Indians, but above everybody else were the Coloured people  -- people of mixed heritage, of one parent European and one parent African. Light-skinned, like our President Barack Obama who is half-white and half-black. Most African people that you see on the streets of Bulawayo are full black and it becomes obvious when the lighter-skinned Coloured person appears.

Once I saw Precious looking in a mirror and I knew what she was thinking -- she wanted to have lighter skin and not be so black. She wanted to use the bleaching cream that some African woman use. The cream has very harsh chemicals. It is dangerous. I begged her to throw it away. "You are beautiful now, " I told her.  What else could I say?

The End.

Expect another issue comes in a few days when I go to the Kwe Kwe Game Ranch to ride horses with the zebras and impalas.

All is well at our house. I made a list of projects to complete and games to play. We had several inches of rain yesterday. Everything is green ad bursting with blossoms and color.

take care,


Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

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