Handisi kunyaso nzwisisa (I don't understand)

Five people in front of a mud brick house.  Two are teenagers, both reclining.  Two older women are seated.


About a week ago, I was down at a little shop that sells African products, buying maize (for sadsa).

As I was getting out of my car, two women were openly speculating about what kind of disability I had. Why I could use my legs and stand up and that I was 'very young' (I am assuming they said 'to be disabled', but I didn't recognise the words).

I didn't recognised those few words because they were speaking in Shona, a language I studied at school because I was deported to Africa by my parents when I was fourteen years old.  I understood the rest.  I'd learned far more Shona in boarding school (after school ended) at the first public school I attended than I did anywhere else.

I learned from the girls that I lived with - at my first school, there were only four white girls. The Black girls treated me kindly, for the most part, but cautiously, because I was Australian but still white. At home on the farm, people spoke Chilapalapa - a language my godmother said (without any rancour) was 'kitchen kaff*r'.

From my classmates, I learned a lot. How to eat flying ants in the prep room (they tasted like peanut butter) and how Chilapalapa was a derogatory language developed by colonialists to infantalise Black people; it was derived from two or three African languages. How 'kaff*r' was once a word that meant 'non-Muslim' (it was used by Arab slavers) but was now considered the worst of all Zimbabwean racial slurs.

I could not remember a lot of the Shona I learned at school and now really only remember greetings and the bastardised language used by white Rhodesians (as opposed to Zimbabweans). Mangwanani Mangwanani, marara sei? Whilst slowly clapping. But I do remember the harshness of the words used for giving orders to servants and workers on the farm. Buya (I cannot spell it, I only know the phonetic pronunciation) 'come here'. Spoken sharply.

Handisi kunyaso nzwisisa, I don't understand. I said that a lot. I did not understand colonialisation. Or ndinokumbira kubvunza. I want to ask you something. They must have been so so sick of me.

I did not know anything about the history of colonialism of that country - I have learned that since. I experienced it only as a white girl who had come to a privileged life from middle class Australia and although it shocked me, I soon grew used to this being the way of the white world in that country. Three years post independence, and the family I lived with still had servants, two gardeners and a 'houseboy'. The first time I saw the 'houseboy' on his knees in my room polishing the baked clay floor, I was shocked and tried to make him get up. Notis was at least sixty five and seeing an old man on the floor of my bedroom polishing seemed incredibly wrong. 'No, no, little miss,' he said. 'This is my job.' He was worried that he would lose his job, because down in the 'compound' - literally, we were surrounded in our big house by a huge barbed wire fence and they lived in rondavels, round thatched clay huts - he had many mouths to feed.

We were not allowed to play with the children in the compound. We sat on the hill outside the house and beat a small monkey skin drum and the children would beat back the same patterns. People did not speak to us in terms of war or apartheid or colonialism or oppression, but it was there, always there. The lingering effects of the Bush War were never far from people's minds - I heard white people talk in bitter terms about the 'terrs' (meaning terrorists) - it was why there was a barbed wire fence around the house on the hill, why there was always a rifle in the front room, why the wireless was always on.

People talked about atrocities too, but they were always about atrocities carried out against whites, with no mention of the hundreds and thousands of Black people who were murdered. A white girl stormed into the music room when I was teaching myself 'Ode to Joy' and slammed the lid down violently - didn't I know I would be locked up if I played that song? It was the tune behind 'Rise oh voices of Rhodesia', a banned song since independence. And there were stories, like the white friends who were stopped by a roadside patrol who, oddly, checked the baby's bassinet in the back of their station wagon. The family became curious and checked it a little way down the road, and sure enough, there was a hand grenade under the mattress. At the next checkpoint, the men at the roadblock went straight to the bassinet.

I left when my father died and I gave all the things I owned, all my clothes and school gear and pencil cases, to Notis for his children and felt guilty because they were only the possessions of a child. Chipa-muchena; kupfuma mudzimu wake. Help for a poor man, but riches are his spirit's affair. They would never benefit from anything I gave them, not really. He thanked me over and over again and I was embarrassed, because they were no repayment at all.

All those things happened and I did not really understand what was happening, nor what had happened, because I learned it from a white perspective. Handisi kunyaso nzwisisa. I still don't.

And then those women, speaking Shona in 2017 outside a little African grocery shop in Maddington.

I was pretty amused by the fact that the women were speaking so candidly and tempted to chime in. But I thought they would have been embarrassed, given the content of what they were saying.

I'm glad I was so horribly behaved as a teen that I was deported to Zimbabwe. Not just to be able to catch fireflies in a jar or stand in a cloud on a mountain, but to be able to bear witness to that part of history through a white lens.

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