I started school the year Mukoma sneaked out of the country and went to South Africa. Two nights before he left, he came to my sleeping hut to show me my new school books. Those books smelled sweet and looked delicious. I sat on my mat smiling and picturing myself at school with other students from all over Mazvihwa.
Mukoma must have seen my joy because he said, "These are not sweets, but love them the way you love sweets."
I sat there nodding.
“Love them more,” he said, smiling, the first time I had seen him smile in a long time.
The incident reminded me of an earlier one, when he gave me my own bag of sweets for the first time. He had never given any child in the extended family his or her own full bag, so I was surprised when he took me to the back of one of our huts and gave me a whole bag of sweets.
He was drunk, but he was not staggering, nor was he stumbling over his words when he handed me the big bag: “Eat as much of these as you want, then when you are full, go and share with others what’s left of them.” I did not say anything because I was too shocked to talk, so Mukoma added, “You don’t have to share these. They are yours, from your true brother.” Then he lit a nice-smelling cigarette, and while smoking, watched me fish through the bag for favorites pieces. “Maybe you can give away the ugly pieces,” he said, sucking his teeth, before bringing the cigarette to his mouth again.
“I will eat them all!” I said. “They are all my favorite ones.”
Mukoma patted me on the shoulders and went back where other men were drinking beer. I stayed behind the hut until I was satisfied that the pieces I had eaten were the best. Oh, how I ate those sweets whose smell was so delicious that I decided not to share even the ugly pieces with anyone. That Mukoma had favored me like this meant a lot to me. But I had not felt as special as I did on the night he showed me the school books.
Mukoma’s wife, Maiguru, had already told me that I was likely going to borrow Ranga’s used books since he was two grades ahead of me. Ranga was the child of one of our neighbors and he always got all the books he wanted since his uncle, who had inherited Ranga’s mother when her husband died, worked somewhere in Shabani. So he was just like a father to Ranga, and a good one because he always said, “Let the little ones learn. Who knows? Maybe when this war ends, they will be our leaders.” Since Ranga had all the books needed at school, and some extra ones to read for fun, many parents came to him to borrow the books he no longer needed.
Maiguru had told me that I had to be good to Ranga for him to consider passing on his Grade 1 books to me. “That’s how it was for some of us when we started school too,” she explained. “We got our books from older children who were already in Grade 2.”
I wasn’t going to give away my books after I was done with them. I would keep them until I ran out of space for more. And Mukoma was saying, “I present to you these books as your torch into the darkness of ignorance.”
I sat there trying to understand him. But then I decided not to understand him yet, because that time would come later in life. I focused on the beauty of those books instead.
“What I am saying now doesn’t have to make sense to you, but you will treasure these words; the words I was brought here on earth to teach you,” Mukoma said, after allowing me to admire the books.
Years later I would try to understand what he had meant with those words, but that was to no avail. He had been clear that night about his aspirations for me: “I want you to tighten your belts and walk into this jungle of life where with these torches you will live a life even happier than mine. This is the road I wanted walk but I was never able to. Now I want you to walk it well, go to places that I may never be able to go.” Father had died while he was still in what was then called Standard 4, and there had been no one to pay for his school fees. “But you don’t worry about me. I am the one who worries about you.”
“I will go everywhere,” I said, chuckling, and he laughed.
I always liked the few moments we laughed together. I liked that night of books.
When he finished smoking he sent me to the kitchen hut to fetch a cup of water for him. He told me he wanted to teach me how to read, so he sat with me on the mat, first pinching his nose because of the smell of urine. But he did not talk about that; instead, he started to present the books to me, one by one. I was surprised because I had never seen him read a book before, except the magazines with lots of nice pictures that he had said I should not touch. But on this night he brandished the books like bazookas, and sat on the floor with his legs outstretched in front of him, his whole body leaning forward.
He had bought me three different books. One was for English, a language he said I was going to learn properly at school, the other was for Shona, which he said was the formal name of the language we spoke, and the third was for what he explained as the numbers subject, Mathematics. As he explained each book, he looked in the air as if he was thinking about something serious, then he would let out a brief laugh and continue talking with a boyish joy.
I knew what English was because I had heard him speak it with his friends, then once in a while when Mai said things like "Fokof! Fokof!" I knew that was English. Once in a while, drunk old men and women at beer gatherings at our home would argue, and always ended up throwing in English words like “Blarry furu!”, “I blast you!” and “idiot!” Maiguru, Mukoma’s wife, used some English too, and once she told me that I was “stupet", but had said that I should not tell Mukoma that she had called me that, although the word sounded nice coming from her mouth. English was all around me; even the birds sounded like they spoke in English.
As Mukoma showed me the English book, I also wished that Maiguru had been there to read it. He had left her in their bedroom, but I would ask her to read some of the books to me since I knew she knew some English. Mukoma read several words in the book, and asked me to tell him what I saw in the corresponding pictures. Then he read some more, all the way to the middle of the book. And I was still awake, so awake that when he stopped I was disappointed. He must have seen my reaction because he said, “Your turn”.
I looked at the book blankly. Of course, he stroked my head, laughed and said, “Don’t worry; one day you will the one teaching people how to read this language.” I smiled and focused on the
pictures in the book. Mukoma read some more words.
On top of that, he was telling me that even the language we spoke was taught in schools. “If you think you know anything about our language wait until you start learning it in school. Some people study it at the university,” he paused. “But you wouldn’t know yet what a university is; I didn’t know for a long time too.”
He started to read from the Shona book. I was struck by the simplicity of the words and the sentences, and the number of pictures in the book. Mukoma showed me the pictures first and asked me what they were, different from what he had done with the English book. With the English book he had read the words first, then asked me to see what he had read in the pictures. Now he was saying, “You tell me what the picture is, then I will read the words for you.” I wanted him to read the words for me, so I tried hard to explain what I saw in the pictures: hens running, cattle grazing; dog and cat playing, dogs chasing hare, cat catching snake. Some of the pictures were of some beautiful homes that anyone in Mototi could never dream to build.
Then Mukoma read the sentences, and I was happy to find out that sometimes the words matched my explanation of the pictures.
The Mathematics book was full of colorful shapes and numbers.
“These are detachable,” Mukoma said, but I did not understand what he meant.
He said it in a different way. “Once you start school, and when you begin to use this book, the teacher may ask you to remove these shapes from the book so you can use them in group work with others.”
I nodded and smiled.
“Good, huh?” Mukoma said.
“I like pictures and shapes and words and English and Shona,’ I said.
He laughed for a moment, then said, “You’ll understand one day what you just said. But it’s a good sign that you like shapes already.”
He said these were not all the subjects I would learn in school; if I started strongly and continued to work hard, there would be other subjects waiting for me, and the learning process he called “advancing” or climbing a ladder.
After the Math book we went back to the English one. He opened the colorful pages again and read so fluently that I just sat there dazzled, listening to the sound of his voice, hoping that one day I would be as good as he was. The way his voice collapsed and reemerged through his nose, his lips curling as if the words he was reading were disgusting, but still managing to read like his voice was magic. Then he explained in Shona what he had just read, retreating to his normal voice.
The story that struck me was one about an egg-like boy who fell and cracked his egg head. Brother had a hard time stopping me from laughing at the boy, and I could not wait to tell Chari about this strange little man, as brother called him. He noticed that the strangeness of the images of these people was attracting my attention and he explained, “Sooner or later you’ll know about these. In fact, this war that you hear people talking about will spread to this village too, and you will see people that look like these, the original speakers of English.”
“They are the English?” I asked.
“Not all the way, but they are related to what are known as the English-English, or the British. What I want you to know right now is that mastering their language will get you far.”
I knew I would have fun at school. I did not laugh as much when Mukoma read the ChiShona book, and I did not laugh once when he was reading the Mathematics one, but I still liked the colors and shapes. Mukoma said soon I would know how to count and spend my own money.
"But I don't have money," I said.
"I will leave you some money. We call it pocket money. Not many other children at your school are going to have pocket money. But you have a brother who works where?”
“South Africa-aa!” I said, feeling saturated with the things of the new books.
“Good boy. You will have your own pocket money that you shouldn't tell your Maiguru about,” he said, and paused, looking at the door. Then he leaned forward and whispered, “It’s our secret. Do you know how to keep secrets?"
“Yes, like the secret about the bag of sweets,” I said. “I ate them all myself.”
“Good boy. You will grow to understand that the life of a man is full of secrets.” He paused and started scratching his face. “What other big secret should you keep?”
I scratched my face too, thinking. I knew the bag of sweets was not a secret anymore. I had already talked about it. I knew the books were not a secret. Maiguru already knew about them.
“You know the big secret, the big-big one that no one in this village should know.”
I jerked my head up. “South Africa. I should not tell anyone that you work there,” I said.
He nodded and lit his face with another smile. He reached in his pocket and brought out some coins. “Here, this is your pocket money.”
I had new books and pocket money on my first day of school. I never told Maiguru about the money, several silver coins which I tied in a piece of cloth and kept for a long time as brother had instructed me. And with that, as with everything else, I became an expert in keeping Mukoma’s secrets.
©2010 by Emmanuel Sigauke