Before Zimbabwe was Zimbabwe. A farm near Gweru. Southern Rhodesia. 1939 – 1950.
A lifetime before my wakening.
Very much like the Africa below it, Rhodesia too was sweltering in the summer, an African type of sweltering that European descendants did not initially enjoy. Sweat, salty sweat dripped from her that day as she pushed and cursed; between huffs and puffs and blue murder screams, a woman was giving birth to a girl that would also, in extraordinary ways, contribute to the war that came. For this journal is also her story — and as hers belongs to me, hers belongs to you too.
She was Yolandi’s real grandmother — and she, on her birthday, was being pushed into the world slap bang in the middle of the hottest summer in Southern Rhodesian history, perhaps the hottest since Cecil John Rhodes stepped foot on this God forsaken continent. At least that’s what her mother screamed as she pushed Jenny into the world. They were at the bowls club for the afternoon and the new born bloodied her whites. Washing was not until Tuesday.
[From Jenny’s memoirs, written in late 1961]
My mother was not mad. I can write this because I know this, but it is important to understand that she was not mad despite how it seemed. Like all time travellers, she too was shackled by her curse and from early on learnt how alcohol, like in life, could numb her never-ending state of wake. Her wake however, as I think about it now years later, must have been especially traumatic considering where she travelled to and as a woman of then, how she was judged in the time she travelled from. So, I always feel especially sorry for my mother now and wish that I could have helped her cope in those years.
I remember it sadly. Drunkenly, she would shout about ‘the war’, about the misery beyond the lids of her sleeping eyes. She was, of course, hilarious for those who did not understand. And mad. And full of timeline-type detail about her crazy time travelling dreams that if she was a man or communist or black or sober — God forbid all four — the woman might have got herself locked up. But she remained free because she was a drunk. And white. And married to my father who was rich tobacco farmer somewhere on the long sand road between Salisbury and Bulawayo. A farm near Gweru.
Of course, I was a darling that my mother loved dearly. But as my mother could never truly love anyone drunk, she spent those days chasing us around the farm, upon which she felt I spent too much time with the blacks doing boyish things. Dad didn’t mind. In fact, Dad thought that mixing with the blacks was best for me as he thought that their presence would deepen my Africaness, which he believed was important for me and my belonging. He was right of course, and a man ahead of his time. Dad respected the black people on his farm very deeply and he dedicated much of his spare time to learning about the intricacies of their culture, a sort of self-made anthropologist if you will — a cultural explorer of things and events that few understood beyond the blacks themselves.
But my mother was not happy with it.
‘She’s spending too much time with that boy,’ she used to shout often.
‘That black boy, Tendai.’
‘So? They’re just kids,’ my dad used to say, ‘It’s good for her to hang around with the Africans. She lives in Africa does she not?’
I always remember what she used to say. She’d go on about there being no place for mixing, and about how I’d be “lost without a people in the war as a mixer”. And that, “people who mix with the other won’t be spared by either.” She was always adamant that we, as much as possible keep black, black and white, white.
Who could’ve believed her, the poor traveller? My dad certainly didn’t.
I remember our house in those years. It was a large white one, proudly colonial against the African bush. Its patios extended all the way round in proper farm style and fly gates covered each entrance so that all its doors could be left wide open in the summer without the house being choked by flies.
The fly gates were useful in other ways too: A slamming fly door was all the warning we ever needed to announce that Mom was drunk and on her way and we, Tendai and I, could mostly escape her before she was even able to make her way down the stairs. But on the odd occasion when we were truly lost in our friendship, having too much of a good time to realise much else but ourselves, Mom and her shambok sometimes caught us up.
Tendai used to stare up at Mom and laugh. He always laughed because his punishment was always the same anyway, laughter or not. But even laughing, however satisfying, did not remove the pain of a good lashing, which of all the lashings he ever received, the one he surely remembered most left him scabbed blue and purple from the end of the wet season until the middle of that dry winter. It was such an upsetting beating that it made Dad angry enough to change the household once and for all.
He rid our house of all the booze and he began sleeping in a separate room from my mother. I imagine that it was meant to scare her into calmness but instead it made her mad tales of the future sharpen, which when explained without alcohol, seemed even more terrifying. About the war, the war to come, she told the family that the Africa of the future was a wasteland, that a race war between blacks and whites had destroyed it and left nothing but a barren and inhospitable dump. She said that the years beyond 1994 were dark, that the skies were choked yellow with gold dust, and that the life she lived there was one suited for a rat: There, she would hide in its corners and avoid, always and forever, the remaining factions of black and white forces who were, she explained, in the last stages of a devastating war that no one had won. Nothing grew and nothing lived in that Africa, she professed. Nothing but hatred.
My dad was hardly convinced but concerned for different reasons. He was running for the provincial MP that year  but rumours about his drunken wife and her mad communist dreams, not least his own love for ‘the natives’, saw him lose that year to the youngest ever Rhodesian MP, a farming man called Ian Smith. I remember how insulted Dad was. Don’t blame him.
Things got even worse for us. Over the course of the next few months our reputation deteriorated further. According to the white Rhodesia that was being built around us, Mom and Dad were bad news. At town meetings, which Dad then didn’t attend at all, off no doubt learning about the blacks again as Ian Smith would say, Mom would scream about the war-torn future. And, as the disgust of adults shone through their children, it left me friendless at school in 1950 as I, a daughter of ‘Her Madness’, was not of desirable company. Truthfully however, none of it really bothered me. I did not care. I already had a best friend in Tendai and our backyard was Africa. What more could I ask for?
Our days were spent between the grass and the dam and the bush beyond it, and at night, as stories beneath the African stars. Our farm was the Africa we loved and we explored it barefoot, stalking bush pig and buck — or as monkeys high up in the trees. It was a great African childhood, one that was only made better by this home that was ours. Mine and Tendai’s. Our Africa.
One evening in early 1950, I remember we were lying on the grass trying to make sense of the universe above us and the fly door banged. Mom was coming so we moved fast. Tendai led me through the tobacco fields far enough so that my mother couldn’t see us beyond the light of the stoep, and further even, beyond the tobacco until we eventually reached Tendai’s village. Sure enough, when we finally did, I remember even then being unsure whether we were still on dad’s farm or whether dad’s farm was on the village. How confusing it was.
When we gathered at the village centre, we sat cheerfully on a torn-down tree trunk between several small huts and made a fire. Tendai stoked the fire with a stick and its end lit up when he blew on it, sending sparks gently into the night sky. More kids from the village joined us I remember, and we all held hands around the fire in a game that spun us in circles until the noise and excitement of the evening was hushed when an eerie voice bellowed from a small hut furtherest from the fire. Everyone scattered except me and I was left alone to ponder the odd and magical voice. Something drew me to it, something both frightening and wonderful, so I decided to enter the hut of its origin, careful not to disturb the spirits of that place when I did.
Call it magic if you will. Call it destiny. Call it fate. Call it God’s will. Call it the will of the ancestors, the will of Africa’s heart. Back then, I didn’t know what her words meant and how they were meant for me but neatly, they would piece together in the years that followed. So, I cannot know any more than you do why it happened nor speculate, but I can tell you this: That was the night that it all started for me and I will never forget it. For that night after I met her, the ancient woman as she sat there in that haunting daze, I underwent my wakening.
As I entered the hut, I moved towards the ancient, slowly, carefully, watching myself do so as if my body was directed from my eyes above me. Silently, I then sat in front of her, crossed my legs, and was immediately transfixed by her set of frosty, blind eyes that peered into the depths of me. Blinkless. Motionless. Terrifying. I waited an age for her to speak. An age, truly. But finally, when she did, she spoke like a ghost would. Her voice did not resonate from her mouth, but rather from the depths of her soul; it echoed in dramatic monotone throughout the small clay hut just as it did in the chambers of my mind. It was everywhere, like a god’s voice or an ancestor’s of an Africa from a time long ago; and even though it was spoken in a language I did not know, I understood every word that she said. How, I cannot be sure.
‘We live in this Africa and we die’, she said. ‘But some of us live in Africas beyond our own. They can see the future or the past, that which happened or that which is still to come. It is their choice whether they change these Africas and their demons whether they do.’
Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the ancient woman felt compelled to share her infinite wisdom the very same night Jenny’s life changed. One thing was certain though. Despite the ancient woman, despite her mystical insight as it was embedded into her ghostly presence, those who are born travellers will travel regardless — and Jenny was a traveller. She, that very night underwent her wakening, and as she did, she too, like her mother before her, like me, like the others still to come in this journal, became a person of not only that Africa but an Africa of another time too.
As it was, ten years later, on another farm far from that one, somewhere on the edges of the Klein Karoo, she pleaded with Chris to believe her. But Chris Hani was not convinced. No reasonable man would be. He just stood there, proper beneath the thorn tree shade. A big lunch had made them lazy and they had been relaxing together in the late afternoon Karoo heat. He was the first person she would ever tell about her wakening, about the life inside her time travelling dreams. But despite how much he loved her, his wonderful and brilliant Jenny, Chris refused to believe it. So, as Jenny feared he might, Chris pulled himself from her that day and left her there alone; alone and tearful in the mirage of the Cape heat.
[Snippet of a letter to Joseph Nkosana from Chris Hani. Sunday, 18 December 1960, translated from isiXhosa]
I spent the whole day with Jenny and it was a great day until the end. I think she has gone mad, my friend. You won’t believe what she told me.
She believes that she can travel through time by falling asleep. Have you ever heard such nonsense? Time travel? She told me that she travels 142 years into the past every time her mind falls asleep. I don’t even know what to say. It is sad.
I expected more from her, Joseph, honestly. How can such a brilliant woman believe herself? She is not well. I am sorry and sad to tell you that I have ended it with her. I had no other choice. I will miss her.
Imagine if it were true though, Joseph. Can you imagine who we could erase from history if time travel was real? Imagine the colonialism that could be undone, the apartheid that could be unravelled.
END OF EPISODE I
Episode II Coming Soon