A biographical account of growing up and community life by the wonderful budding writer and ARLT Foundation student Ann Matthews from Zimbabwe.
I found this to be an exciting question as it has brought out several childhood memories which I had subconsciously shelved somewhere at the back of my mind. Not all of them were bad at all. I am the third of a family of children, four girls and one boy. I remember my mother telling me stories of how she was desperate to have a baby boy because during that time a woman was considered worthy if she could give her husband a son, in fact sons was the expectation from a wife. Finally, after three girls she gave birth to a son. In our culture when a person gets married, they say you have also married your spouse’s family (and pretty much the community too because in the rural areas everyone is related somehow or other!!)
I was born in a small town in the rural areas in Zimbabwe and my father was a teacher/headmaster, in those days that was a very prestigious job. We were very proud to be called his children. We lived in a village set up but not too primitive because the very “rural areas” have no roads which are there if you are driving there it is a matter of maneuvering through the spaces which are there between the homesteads. Our homestead consisted of different types of “houses” and this was pretty much the set up of the homes around us. The biggest building had two bedrooms and a lounge with a front facing verandah and had corrugated metal roof. Then adjacent to it was the kitchen, it was a type of rondavel, a huge round hut with a grass thatched roof. We also had a couple of barns built opposite the kitchen. There was also another big room which would be called the boy’s house, where the boys slept. In some families, they would also build another big room which would be known as the girls’ room. My father loved reading so he built a library consisting of one room a bit of a distance from the kitchen so in this sense we were different from those around us. All the buildings were built on the edges of the yard and an open space would be left in the middle and all the buildings faced that opening. Of course, there was a blair toilet cum bathroom a distance from the house.
We were well off by the standards of the society. My dad owned a bicycle, which was a measure of wealth again. Our community was an agrarian one, we would have a bit of land at the back of the house where crops such as maize, groundnuts, sorghum and pumpkins would be grown. Each homestead was fenced and gated. Then each family had a piece of land about three to five kilometres away from their homes, where they cultivated their crops. I remember there was a well which supplied water for the community, it always had crystal clear water and I would see the frogs which were at the bottom of the well. WE would go with plastic buckets to fetch water which we would balance on our heads and then hold a pail with water in each hand. The men would usually ferry the water in wheelbarrows but women if they so wished they would use wheelbarrows too. It was agreed that no pots or clothes would be taken to the well to be washed because the water had to be kept clean. The reason this was adhered to so well was because of the folklore of a mermaid which resided in the well and we were told that a mermaid does not like dirt so he would dry up the well if anything dirty was to be seen at the well.
Food was cooked in the kitchen, there was a hearth in the middle of the floor with a grate. This is where food was cooked, facing the door there would be a built-in shelf made of concrete and usually painted and decorated where the kitchen utensils were stored and displayed. The mother and her daughters would start the fire, cook in the kitchen, men would only come in for a short while to talk but they would hardly be in the kitchen, especially at night, men would have a fire outside where they sit around while drinking and talking. They would also have their food served by the fire. There was protocol in the serving of food, whether a daughter, servant or the mother cooked the meal, the serving was always the mother’s duty and priviledge. A lot of emphasis was (and still is) on the mother dishing out for everyone and the mother would be affronted if anyone opened the pots, no one absolutely no one can open pots of cooked food without permission from the mother of the house!!! The protocol was that food would be dished for the father first and all the choice pieces go to him, then the mother and everyone else according to their ages. Most of the time the father eats with other men and women eat on their own in the kitchen. I remember how close I was to my father so I would go and sit with him especially when he was in his library where he spent most of his time.
There was a shopping center within the vicinity which had basic stuff for sale, foodstuff, essential building materials and clothing. About another 10 kilometres away was a missionary school known as St. Anthony’ school. There was a primary and secondary school. It consisted of more than a school, it had the biggest hospital in the community, there was a church too, Catholic of course. There was a seminary and a nunnery there too.
A typical day for families would consists of the following: everyone from the father, mother, children regardless of age wakes up very early around 5am, wash their faces, pick up already packed bags, tools for tilling the field, water etc. and off to the field in the dark really! The mother would have cooked food the night before to be eaten at the fields. Every single person goes to the field including the school children. I remember this so vividly, how we would walk to the fields so early, everyone works in the field, if there is a baby, a towel and a blanket would be spread on the ground usually near a bush or under a tree for the shade and the baby both plays and sleeps and strangely enough they hardly cry. An hour before schools start, the children put water in a bucket sometimes you have a bath but sometimes it’s just to wash your feet and face, if you have shoes (very rare) put them on and start your 5km walk to school. There would be packed lunch mostly of boiled sweet potatoes. After school, you head straight for the fields again, then you all go home at sunset.
Two days in the week no one would work in the fields, just light household work would be done. On a Thursday, no one would work because it was a sacred day in honour of the ancestors, Sunday was in honour of Jesus Christ. Everyone in the community knew each other, there was unity and a mutual understanding of the way of life, an adult woman was a mother to any child in the community, with a few exceptions of the odd cruel people known by the whole community.
My dad died when I was ten years old and when that happens life changes in a big way. In our culture, back then (1980) the widow had no say in what would happen to the kids and herself. After the burial of her husband a wife must say if she wants to be the wife of any of the men lined up, who are chosen by the family. In the line up my brother a small child of 8years was the one my mother set the dish in front of, indicating that she did not want to be remarried in the family. In this ritual, men line up and the widow is given a dish with water in it, she walks along the line and puts the dish in front of the man she chooses and if he agrees he washes his hands and she becomes his wife! Then the she and the children become the responsibility of this man. In our case because my mother refused anyone else, the children had to be given to my dad’s siblings, so the five of us were given to different people, we were to be split up, my mom would go and stay with my grandfather while we went to the different homes we were allocated, Thankfully, for whatever reason it did not happen that way, we all ended up moving from ……. to Harare, the big city!!! This move brought a culture shock for us, the way we knew life had changed. Looking back now after sometime our culture had not significantly changed, except for the bigger houses, with running water, electricity all the rooms under one roof etc but we still honoured our elders but not all the neighbours spoke to us however those who did would look after us as if we were their children especially those who knew of the ill treatment we were receiving from my uncle.