Talking Over the Fence with Mr. Dlhwayu
By Fred Owens
Precious and I settled into our rented house on Shottery Crescent. It was an African paradise of strength and love. Mr. Dlhwayu was our neighbor. He and I would talk over the low-wire fence in the evening.
"Mr. Dlhwayu, how is your evening going? I see you are doing some small work on the engine of that car. When will your car be ready because I wish for you to give me a ride in it." Mr. Dlhwayu was bent over the engine under the hood of the junker. "Let me finish to tighten this nut, then I will speak to you," he said. He spoke a quick command to his assistant, a very humble and quiet young man who wore white -- they were once white -- overalls. "Patrick, hand me the spanner of 12 mm," he said to the assistant in the Shona language. Spanner was what we call a wrench, and 12 mm because Zimbabwe used the metric system I was a little proud of myself for knowing things like that, for knowing how to pronounce and spell Mr. Dlhwayu's name.
The sun went down. It became too dark to work, so it seemed to me, but Mr. Dlhwayu did not emerge from under the hood. He had no Go Light to use. To me, his old car seemed a hopeless pile of junk that would never cruise the road again. But what do I know? Mr. Dlhwayu pursued a dream.
He wore the modest attire of a high school history teacher. His hair was soft and woolly. His skin was like vanilla caramel, a very smooth light-brown shade. I enjoyed the sound of his voice, as he spoke wistfully of many dreams. "Someday this car will be welcome to use, and I will give you a ride. Someday my wife will have a new carpet for the living room. And I will build a strong six-foot fence around my property."
"But where will the money come from?" I asked. I asked him questions like that every evening, over the wire fence that separated his plot from our rented plot. We talked like neighbors who had known each other for decades. Some times I came into his house to use his phone because we did not yet have one. He had two teenage sons, sprawled disrespectfully on the living room couch. They would barely greet me when I came to use the phone.
Mr. Dlhwayu told me of his spiritual practice, because I asked him. I would sometimes see him leave the house right at darkness, wearing a white billowing robe and sandals. He said, "I belong to the Apostolic Brethren. We gather on a hilltop on certain nights of the month. We pray and sing the whole night through. This is my practice and belief."
"But where is your church building, where is your Bible?" I asked him. Mr. Dlhwayu responded, "We do not believe in a building or in a book. We only believe in the power of the spirit. So we wear our white robes on the hilltop for the power and goodness. That is my belief."
"I see you are a good man, Mr. Dlhwayu, will you say a prayer for me on the hill top?"
I had a home in Africa. I could pinch myself I was so happy. A house, a truck and a bride-to-be. A TV, a new stove and frig, a good used sofa and a dining table with four chairs. Everything a man could want to have. Precious ruled it all. I only paid for it. She had such presence. That it was her right and destiny. I just smiled and drank my beer. "What do you want to watch in the TV tonight?" I asked her. "We can watch Fresh Prince of Bel Air or the Jeffersons or something else. They are from America, like me, only they are black, like you. " We had a small black and white TV with a rabbit ears antenna. There was only one channel, the ZBC or Zimbabwe Broadcasting Company. Having only one channel reduced TV to its essence. You could either turn it on or turn it off. That pleased me. Then Precious would sprawl on the love seat or the sofa. She would never sit up if she could sprawl.
She cooked in the kitchen. I sat and waited in the living room. Once I came into the kitchen to lend a hand. She paused from her work. Turned around to look at me and said, "What are you doing in here? You think I can't cook? You don't like what I make?" She made the same thing every night, sadza with meat. A huge heaping mound of sadza which is nothing but an extra stiff mixture of white boiled corn meal, stiff enough to hold up a fork by itself. Much stiffer than mashed potatoes. It amazed me how much sadza people ate in Zimbabwe. Every day. Every meal. And meat. usually beef, fried in a mixture of chopped tomatoes and onions, fried until it was tender.
The beef in Zimbabwe was almost always grass fed and organic. This was not intentional. They just had not gotten around to building feed lots and adding hormones to the diet of the cows. Cows in Zimbabwe live wild and free, got kind of rangy, were sold when the owner needed money. The meat was very tasty but far from tender. Precious boiled it first, then fried it. It was wonderful, every night. Except we had chicken sometimes.
Should I be talking about hyenas and leopards and native drumming and dancing? I could, but that's not how people live in Zimbabwe. They live in houses and watch TV and eat dinner on a plate with a knife and fork.
The daytime temperature was 95 degrees almost every day, always the same. It might edge up toward a 100 degrees once every week or so and then the lady selling tomatoes out on the curb of the street in front of the bottle store would say "It's too hot." I would answer her, "Yes, mama, it's too hot. I don't like it." And she would say, "but what can you do?" "You don't have an umbrella for the shade, mama?" "Otherwise I didn't bring it."
"But you won't suffer," I said. "No, otherwise it will be all right."
But our house was always cool, even on a hot day. We did not need a fan, just opening all the windows brought in a light cooling breeze.
And a garden. I will just mention one thing about our garden before I finish this episode. Among other things we grew strawberries. Very few people do that in Zimbabwe. We gave some fresh strawberries to Mr. Dlhwayu and he was thrilled beyond. "I have never in my life seen a strawberry. They taste so good!"
all for now,