By Richmore Tera
THERE were no petals
nor garnished garlands
decorating my path
upon my return
only but broken hopes
and shattered dreams
littered my path
HIS suitcase was heavy. But the conductor heaved it like an empty sack from the roof of the bus and threw it at him where he was standing with his hands raised, ready to catch it.
It landed against his chest with a thud. As he placed it on the ground, the bus’ gears groaned, and it coughed forward, belching out a pall of thick black smoke from its tired exhaust pipe.
He watched it as it trundled round the bend of the dusty road filled with potholes, its chassis bending precariously to one side, as if it would tip over at any moment. Gravel crunched under its wheels and the wares that were loaded on its carrier bobbed and bounced against one another, like the passengers themselves who were squashed in the bus like beans in a small cane.
For a moment, his eyes lingered on the message that was written at the rear of the bus: “Tenda wasvika” – give thanks after you have arrived safely. Sure, he had to thank his ancestors for bringing him home safely after so many years in that foreign land.
It had been a mixture of heaven and hell, that long sojourn, a bittersweet experience that had transformed him into a totally new and different person from what he had been before he left. He remembered how he sloughed his identity and mores in order to fit in and adapt to his new surroundings.
At first, he had felt like a square peg in a round hole, a black patch on a white cloth, but he soon drowned himself in the sweet, intoxicating wine of novel experiences. It was not long before he forgot about home and roots.
The first day that he arrived in the foreigners’ land, the level of ‘civilisation’ that he saw around him overwhelmed him. Her found himself blaming himself and his ancestors for being been born elsewhere and not here. There were no dirty, sooty huts with grass-thatched roofs, goats ruining the yard with their droppings, no cattle to herd and rivers from where to fetch dirty water to drink and bath and pit-latrines or ‘bush toilets’.
But here everything was standard, civilised. Money worked for you here. You didn’t need to sweat too much.
The first day that he had arrived in the foreign land, the people who had sponsored his trip were waiting for him at the airport. As he soon as he stepped his feet on their soil, they whisked him away in an expensive car that was idling outside the terminal. They booked him into a hotel where he was treated like royalty.
“This is your room. Everything you want will be served to you. Meanwhile, relax. It has been a long journey. We’ll see each other in the morning,” the man who had introduced himself to him as Father Ralph said. There was something about Father Ralph’s mien that was not suitable for a church cleric. His earring, tattoos of coiled snakes and naked people and his habit of chewing gum and inflating it into bubbles before popping them in his mouth were not sacerdotal.
He however had a talent of smooth talking people into comfort and also had a habit of fingering his white clerical collar, a habit that soon dispelled any notions that Kura might have formed in his mind about the man.
Father Ralph briskly breezed out of the room, his feet-length robes flowing after him.
Although he was exhausted from the long journey, Kura found it difficult to sleep. He was thrilled that he had finally made it to the Eldorado that had at first thought only existed in his dreams. But now, he was living the dream.
He remembered the long struggle he had went through in order to be accepted for this ‘job’. He had applied for it through his church, The United African Church. Although it had taken him several months of correspondence with Father Ralph – who had placed the advertisement in different newspapers inviting Christians in the African world interested to work as information technology personnel with the World Wide Ministries housed in New York to apply – the responses that Kura had started receiving were very encouraging.
He had become so hopeful that his prayers were filled with this issue of travelling to the United States. He tearfully pleaded with God to open the door of opportunity for him so that he could assist his brothers and sisters who were suffering, through this job.
And it had happened like magic.
On his second day in the United States, Father Ralph came back to the hotel to “collect him”, and that too, was the day that it immediately dawned on Kura that he had fallen into a net. There was nowhere to run because the place was new to him and Father Ralph was like an octopus whose tentacles were far-reaching, as he later discovered.
“You can start work now,” said Father Ralph, fingering his white collar and chewing his bubble gum, as always.
“I will bring you a client. He is a good one. Don’t be rough with them, our clients, I mean. The proprietors of this hotel are very kind to us. So this room is your ‘office’ starting from now. But they pay to me, you understand?”
Kura was baffled. Incredulity was pasted all over his face.
“Sorry Father, I don’t think I get you right. What kind of job is…is…this that I – ” Father Ralph brought his finger to Kura’s lips and whispered in his ear.
“You’ll soon learn and get used to it with the passage of time.”
This only served to stupefy him more and without a moment’s thought Kura was running towards the closed door.
Before he could reach for the handle, two stout men suddenly burst from the adjoining room and made for him. One grabbed him roughly by the collar of his shirt while the other punched him in the stomach with fists that were hard like bricks. The pain shot through his stomach and he bunched over and slumped to the floor.
“You do as I say, Kura. We paid for your airfare and everything, and we can’t let our money go to waste just like that. This is the job that you applied for, not that information technology shit, and you are going to do it with whomever we send to you. You understand?” Father Ralph spoke in a low soft voice, crouching by his side.
When Kura made no effort to respond, Father Ralph tweaked his fingers and the two men started kicking him in the stomach until he screamed in reply.
“Okay Father, I’ll do it. Now!”
“Leave him,” he said to the two bouncers. “You may go now.”
As the two men silently walked out of the room, Kura’s faculties suddenly blacked out. It was after what seamed like an eternity that he woke up in a hospital bed, with a nurse and a policeman by his side.
“You know the people whose hands you had fallen into? They were on the wanted list for many crimes, among them human trafficking, drug peddling, prostitution and who knows what could have happened to you had we not tailed them to your hotel room and cornered them?” said the policeman, arms akimbo.
After the incident, the state assisted Kura with accommodation as he recuperated and searched for employment. His information technology degree had come in handy when a small firm based in New York offered him work.
“A real man has to drink and enjoy life. Work alone stresses you. You need to de-stress yourself. Why can’t you join me for a drink tonight?” Jordan, his workmate, had said one day in spite of Kura’s protests.
“I am a church man, you know. I was brought up in a Christian family that never touched anything alcoholic.”
“Kura my man, grow up. One beer is no harm, you know man. It’s good for you.”
And that is how he had started descending into the abyss. It was after he had earned his first pay that he had accompanied Jordan to his favourite club, The Denizen.
The nightlife that he witnessed on that single outing was enough to convince to transform him into one of the best, if not well known, regulars of the hottest clubs in New York. He now spoke with a Yankee accent, wore the best designer clothes, smoked the expensive cigarettes and drank with the highest-charging women who could disrobe at the mere crinkle of money.
It was during one of their drinking escapades that he got caught up in the crossfire of a shoot-out involving his friend and two other colleagues on one side against a gang of four others on the other side. One innocent person was shot dead.
Although investigations later revealed that he had nothing to do with the incident, Kura was however deported as, according to what was written in his papers, “a potential threat to the citizens of the United States, who always finds himself in the wrong and most violent elements of society.”
As he watched the bus getting swallowed into the dust that its motion raised, Kura heaved a huge sigh. It had been an uneventful stay in the foreign land, he wistfully said to himself.
Raising the suitcase to his head, he wove his way towards the river in which he had swam and fished and masturbated while he was still a young boy with mucus on his nose.
Would it still be heaving and sighing with sheets of turbulent water roaring and plunging against its banks, rendering it unpassable?
But as he approached it, his heart sank. The water level was low – the river was silting, dying. Two scrawny cattle were lapping mouthfuls of water from the river without any apparent relish, while the herd boy snored in the shade of an emaciated, sun-scorched mutamba tree. Next to him was his bony dog, busy licking its wounds and feebly snapping with its jaws at the peevish flies that were feasting on its pus.
He followed the path as it meandered down towards the village. Everything around him had changed and was dying. Only the old mountain seemed to be ageless, immovable, and unchangeable.
As he approached the village, he saw a cloud of smoke billowing into the air above the cone-shaped roofs. But it was not the smoke that caught his attention.
He heard it, the distant sound of drums. Could these drumbeats be hailing his return? Could his people have heard about his arrival and slaughtered beats and prepared beer and were now playing drums to welcome him back home?
As he was about to walk into the yard of his parents’ homestead, he noticed the red cloth tied to a pole by the gate. People were sitting listlessly in the shade of the old mukute tree, staring into space, others – elderly men – were surrounding a big fire that had been lit at the centre of the yard, while some women were sitting or sleeping in one of the huts.
At first no one recognised him as he made for the main house, greeting no one, totting his heavy suitcase with him. But as he entered, one of his father’s closest friends – sahwira – Mbuya Jeneti, realised him and jumped from where she had been sitting on the floor, flinging her old shawl around her scrawny body.
“Mai, mai! Look who is here! Is that really you, Kura mwana wasahwira?”
Everyone in the house suddenly jerked his or her head towards him. Some women renewed keening with gusto, trying to impress on him that they cared for the deceased.
“It’s me Mbuya Jeni,” he said, lost for words.
“Yes, it’s you, I can see that. But why should your ancestors bring you to see your father only dead? He died yesterday, your father. Pasi panodya mufunge,” she said, shaking her head this and that way, clasping and unclasping her arms in pity.
The words stabbed his heart like spears. He slumped to the floor and buried his head in his arms. As his sides started shaking fitfully, Mbuya Jeneti went to him and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Now stop behaving like a child, Kura. Grow up, like your name. Thank God that you have come back home at the right time because there was nothing to eat here and we were cracking our heads over where we should get the money to buy your father’s coffin. Since you have just arrived from America, you are now our only and last hope,” she said, as her hands reached for the zip of his suitcase.
“What do you have in here for us, Kura, food?
At these words, Kura felt lost. How could he explain to them that there was nothing in his suitcase except books, a typewriter and a few clothes, the only things that he had owned and had managed to pack when he was deported? He had used the typewriter to write his scripts in his spare time, as he had suddenly developed a hobby for writing.
“There is nothing in there, Mbuya Jeneti. Only books, clothes and a typewriter,” he said, evading the gazes of the other people who had trickled into the hut after word about his return had spread.
“How old is Jeneti now? Where is she?” he tried to steer the story towards another direction.
“You never heard, did you? Jeneti is sick, very sick. We have little hope, we are only praying that the ancestors give her soul a rest. Any way, if you say you have got no food in that bag, you should at least give us money to buy it and send some men to buy the coffin as well?”
He felt sweat breaking and trickling from his armpits. Shifting uneasily on the floor where he was sitting, Kura said nothing. He was struggling very hard to come up with a convincing lie. After all, how could he tell them that he had been deported, and had been labeled an undesirable element in the United States? How could he tell them that he had squandered his precious years there doing nothing productive except clubbing, doping, boozing, and womanising without thinking of home?
Also, could he tell them that upon his arrival in the capital, Harare, hours after disembarking from the plane, he had converted the one and only United States dollar in his pocket to the few dollars in the worthless local currency, on the local market in order to get the exorbitant bus fare to the village that the transport operators were charging?
Now he was penniless, and they were asking for money to buy food and his father’s coffin from him!
“I…I was deported,” he finally mustered the courage to blurt the truth out. But what was to follow was nothing from the truth.
“They said I was a political criminal. So they just froze all my accounts and before I knew it the authorities there had sorted all my deportation papers and I had little time to pack all my belongings except for these few items. Those fools!” he shouted, suddenly springing up and tearing the map of the United States from where he had religiously pasted it on the wall several years ago before his departure.
They watched him in amazement, pity and sorrow as he danced like a mad man on the torn map, stomping on it like it was a devil.
Two old men stepped forward and tried to persuade him against dishonouring the dead through such an outburst. In his mind he suddenly saw the picture of his tender mother’s face that would always curl up in an expression of rebuke against any form of violent temper.
He had never thought about her, let alone ask after her, upon his arrival.
“Mother? Where is my mother?”
One of the man who had tried to restrain him said: “We are very sorry. Your mother was the first one to go. She just fell and was gone, just like that. We think it was stress that took her away because she was always talking, no, hallucinating about you. Come this way,” he said, dragging him by the arm. “Let us show you where she is lying.”
But that was too much for him. Like a broken marionette, he fell onto the pieces of the United States map that he had torn as convulsive tears wrecked his jet-lagged body.