November 20, 2009
Nyasha has always been failed by transportation, starting with his own legs. His body battles with itself with each step, his good leg swinging around the crooked one in a knee-bent, rolling gait.
Nyasha giggles a lot, his hand in front of his mouth. For the winner of the “Unfunniest Life” he surprisingly seems to view his life as an unfurling, complex joke.
I was a teenager when my mother employed him. He used to come to the gate and apologetically ask for food. He was starving. He would ask in a way that this was a temporary hitch and he had a plan.
My mother used to give Nyasha food and find odd jobs for him to do in the garden. It wasn’t long before he was in our permanent employ. He wasn’t the obvious candidate for the post. In fact the post was hastily created to fill his stomach and give him a place to live and a basic wage. The main reason for having a gardener on the property was a security measure, but his diminutive stature and timid disposition did not lend themselves to this. On top of this he was bored by menial gardening tasks and could sometimes be seen yanking at the hosepipe as if there was a stubborn donkey at the other end of it.
My mother asked Nyasha why he limped. His response had been to bring his hand up to his mouth and giggle before giving the vague explanation that he had had a fall as a child. We didn’t get the joke but I think it was part of a bigger picture, the Nyasha philosophy.
There was one thing that Nyasha was interested in and to which he was slavishly devoted: Education. All his money went on correspondence courses and exam fees so that he could finish his high school qualifications. He ticked off maths, history and geography and then embarked on English literature. One day I came across him looking particularly contemplative.
“I was just wondering,” he said “about the theme of betrayal running through Tess of the D’Urbervilles”.
He would write his essays in beautiful, mission-school cursive and send them off faithfully to be marked by someone who was smiling all the way to the bank. Trading on hope.
Nyasha’s requests came thick and fast and usually revolved around family obligations. Or his perceived obligation to them now that he was earning a wage. During his begging days he seemed to have been ostracized by his family except for a sister who was close to him in age.
He often had to go back to Masvingo to help plant crops before the rains, repair the roof on his parents hut or help with the harvest. Money was always short in his family and he seemed to live on nothing himself, sending everything he earned to the charlatans trying to sell him an education or to his grasping family.
When my mother moved out of her home and I was newly married, Nyasha came with me. My doubtful dowry.
I asked him if he had ever seen a doctor about his leg and he just laughed. With his consent I fixed up an appointment and we found ourselves in the hushed, carpeted environs of my family doctor. He had a quiet stable of patients made up of the white and the well-heeled. He was perplexed when Nyasha hobbled his way into his room.
When he emerged again he delivered his verdict: skeletal damage which could only be fixed by breaking his leg in several places and attaching him to the modern equivalent of a rack. After about a year of physio he may then be able to walk tall. Nyasha brought his hand up to his mouth and giggled, bending at the waist and trying his best to contain his mirth. He had only come along to humour me and we made our way back to the car, me fuming and Nyasha laughing.
The bald truth was that Nyasha was never going to walk tall, he was submission personified. Even if he had been blessed with long, straight legs, whatever had gone before in his life would probably have still curled his shoulders forward and fixed his eyes to the floor. And the worst kind of people always picked up on it.
Bus stations in Zimbabwe are a heaving mass of sweat, noise and stealth. Practiced hands slide into bags and pockets and they always find Nyasha. Sometimes the stealth is exchanged for violence and nobody pays any attention. On many occasions Nyasha returned from his rural village with an eye swollen shut and ripped clothing. Whatever he had set out with was usually stripped from him before he found his seat on the bus.
So we bought him a bicycle. And this was a great success. Suddenly a man who had to painstakingly hobble to the shops and on his errands could fly along the road like anyone else. He even took to riding it home – 300 km or so. When the pedals broke, my mother had a welder acquaintance weld the most durable ones known to man in place and once again, Nyasha was good for go.
One memorable weekend he returned from a trip home to see his family. The saddle was missing. Apparently it had been stolen at the beginning of his journey so he had pressed on, riding all the way with a pole where a comfortable seat should have been. I asked him how he managed it. He gives his trademark titter and says,
“I did not sit down”.
Some months later the rest of the bicycle went to the land of stolen goods. He was very upset and reported it to the police – a rather futile gesture in a country of limited resources and explosive crime figures. Miraculously, the bicycle turned up and was identified thanks to its pedals. They were about all that was left of it.
I was somewhat taken aback when Nyasha asked to borrow money one day for an unusual purpose: he wanted to pay a brideprice or lobola. The sum in question was modest considering that girls from Masvingo are highly prized and command dozens of cattle and (in these days of uncertain local currency), US dollars.
A few days later he brought the lucky girl to meet me. She was a dull-eyed woman, some years older than Nyasha, with a sullen comportment. More worryingly, her arms and legs were covered in white, scaly lesions and I wondered if this was what leprosy looked like. She did not look at me or greet me and tugged at tufts of unkempt hair as Nyasha spoke.
“Are you happy about your marriage?”, I ask
The hand comes up to stifle a laugh.
“What a ludicrous thing to ask” he is probably thinking.
“There were only two left in our village” he says,
“I chose this one” he says waving a hand at her dismissively, “because she knows how to make bricks.”
They marry and it is not a match made in heaven. Her brick-making skills were more hearsay than fact and she dislikes working in the field. She does not get along with his parents and complaints fly too and fro.
Despite this a child is born of this doubtful union. A bright, delicate boy called Stanley.
When Stanley is a year old, Nyasha’s sister follows her deceased husband and succumbs to AIDS. She leaves three children. Nyasha and his brother plump for the only transport option left to them to take her on a final journey home. Another loan is required to purchase a coffin and pay the extortionate amount demanded by the only people willing to carry both death and superstition on their flatbed trucks.
The money is handed over and his sister is placed on the truck in a flimsy “collapsible” coffin. These are the bargain-basement versions and can be tucked under the arm in their collapsible form if your loved ones have had the presence of mind to die where they are going to be buried.
They head for Masvingo and when the brothers indicate the dusty turnoff, there is much shouting and waving of arms. They are chased off the truck and the body dumped unceremoniously on the ground. They are left in a cloud of dust as the truck accelerates away to a higher profit margin somewhere else. They walk the long way home, the coffin disintergrating en route.
Nyasha takes on his nephew and nieces vicariously. He sends them home to Leper-woman. She is harsh with them but he has no choice. His brother cannot take them because he too is sick with AIDS, then dies. He adds another three orphans to Nyasha’s brood. Leper-woman has had enough. She straps Stanley to her back and heads for the city. He is weaned now and she dumps him with Nyasha and heads for the hills.
Stanley is an engaging little boy. He sits for hours colouring pictures my mother has given him. I have now left the country and Nyasha is working part time for my mother. She has a garden the size of a postage stamp so doesn’t really need him but he needs her. She manages to get him a job with a good family friend and he is there still. He is very fortunate to have the job and is well taken care of but as always, his needs are many.
He has since reunited with his wife and the result of this joyful reuinion is Blessing, a fat baby girl brimming with all the health and vitality her parents lack. Blessing indeed.
This is what I wish for Nyasha: money to buy seed and draft power to feed his family, time to study, a clerical job and a great big pile of books. I wish him better luck with transport. I do not wish him any more Blessings.