“Locked Gates and Tall Grass” – by Leroy M. Ndlovu

The lunchtime traffic swarmed around the brazen image of the nation’s hero. Directly beneath him sat a number of photographers, each of whom had found the area particularly good for business. Schoolteachers frequently brought their grade one classes on field trips to learn about ‘Father Zimbabwe’ and his selfless contribution towards gaining independence from the imperialists who wanted to enslave the black nation for eternity.

‘Father Zimbabwe’ stood on a pedestal right in the middle of the intersection of Eighth Avenue and the street named after him. Lungile stopped and stared at it for a few minutes. A roundabout had been constructed around it, giving people enough freedom to admire the statue without interfering with the traffic. The pedestal was at least three metres in height, and the effigy stood proudly on it with his short leadership staff in his right hand, forever gazing toward the north. Lungile chuckled. He was barely ten years old when the old man crossed the Styx, but he was certain that the statue looked nothing like him. He looked at the photographers all going about their business. To them the statue was a source of income, and it might as well have been Scooby Doo up there for all they cared. As always they were busy attending to a class of kids who wanted their picture taken. They loved the statue. In their eyes the old man was something of a legend. Lungile chuckled again. They would probably grow up knowing only the version of his story that the schools were allowed to teach.

The children gathered around the statue were from a school in Lobengula West, where Lungile’s family had lived many years ago. He would have recognised the uniform anywhere. Many of them were skinny and seemed malnourished. They wore ill-fitting uniforms that could easily have been bought when Lungile himself was in grade one.

So this is the face of sovereignty, he thought.

His father, an incurable socialist – who, if Lungile’s mother had not violently opposed it, would have named his only son Lenin – had often said that the country was fast going to the dogs. Many of his friends were war-veterans, and he always started arguments with them by declaring that things were better when it was Rhodes who stood at the same intersection, also gazing northwards.

“Sure,” he would say, “I wasn’t allowed to walk on the curb and the only day I was allowed near the bloody statue was on Pioneer Day when we were forced to play ‘Rise O Voices of Rhodesia’ while the whites celebrated another successful year of subduing the natives. And I never forget the day an overzealous dog ruined my new suit at the Trade Fair, nor the fact that we couldn’t be promoted to any positions of real power. But I will tell you one thing, man. I never went to bed on water and boiled maize kernels back then! I saved up and bought all the furniture in my house! Because the economy made sense! And even if I couldn’t walk on the pavement, the goddamn streets were clean and vending in town was unheard of!”

Lungile swallowed a hard lump at the memory of his late father. The old geezer had been right and no one had paid him any attention. He could not remember the last time he had been able to buy anything worthwhile. The streets had not been re-tarred in years and in many places the potholes made walking beside the street dangerous as cars would turn in any direction just to avoid them. The pavements teemed with black faces, but merely because they had to sell fruits, vegetables and any other small items to put food on the table for that night.

He shook his head and walked on. Samantha’s lunch break was only thirty minutes and if he missed it he would have hell to pay later. She worked at a restaurant at the old department store on Fifteenth and what Lungile still referred to as Main Street. The work kept her mind off things and he was grateful for it, though sometimes he had to fight back the tears when she offered to buy him stuff on her meagre salary. She was a special girl. Lungile smiled.

They had been together since one rainy day three years before when he had been on his way home from a Calculus exam that he knew he had failed. She was wearing tight black jeans and a plain black T-shirt. The sky had been dark for some time and the rain had come suddenly. They had all but fallen over each other to hide in a disused doorway. The rain came down for the longest of time that day and by the time they left they had been chatting away like old friends.

She liked indie pop just like he did. They were both huge fans of Fun and even though some people may have found the lyrics depressing she thought their songs were great because on a happy day you could enjoy the music, and on a sad one you could just relate to the words and be glad that you were not alone. She had not finished high school and expressed envy when he told her he was coming from a University exam. Her deadbeat father had disappeared leaving her and her mother to take care of her younger siblings so school had ceased to be an option right after O-level. She told him the saddest details about her life even though they had just met. He could not believe how brightly she smiled despite how sad her life sounded. When he thought back to that day now, Lungile believed he had begun to fall in love with her the minute they met. She brought sunshine into his world, and when she hugged him he always felt as if all his problems would disappear. It was as if in each embrace every bit of the love they had in their hearts became one and lit up their souls. It was the purest bliss.

He arrived at the old building ten minutes before Samantha’s lunch break began. He did not like to seem like the overbearing boyfriend so he never went in to look for her. Instead he would wait across the street and send a Please-Call-Me request to signal that he was waiting. He pulled out his box of Everest cigarettes and took out one of the remaining three. He would have to smoke half and save the rest for later. No point in being extravagant in hard times. He lit it and stared at the ancient department store. He had no clue who owned it, or when it was built, but looking at it always made him wonder if the restaurant made enough money to support the rest of the business. The restaurant always seemed to be busy, but the rest of the store looked like it had been stocked out of a 1990s renaissance warehouse. On one occasion he had walked past with his mother, who was getting close to her sixties, and even she had been surprised at how old the clothes looked.

Lungile checked the time again. He carefully put out his cigarette before replacing it in the box. He searched his trouser pockets for a mint and found one in his back pocket. He unwrapped it, threw it in his mouth, and promptly crushed it with his molars to mask the tobacco smell. He was a different young man when he met Samantha, and he had changed a lot since, but one thing he had failed to do was to quit smoking. The fact that she knew, however, was no reason not to try and be fresh.

She came rushing out of the store at half past one exactly and he knew she was not going anywhere today. She had her hairnet and apron on. He crossed the street and met her at the corner of the building.

“Hey you,” he greeted her, smiling.

She returned his smile and they hugged. That sweet, precious hug. When they pulled back they kept their arms around each other’s waists.

“How’s your day going?” she inquired.

“Not bad. I’ve been all over town again today. Same story as always. ‘We’ll call you if anything comes up.’”

Getting a job had proved to be impossible. Lungile had submitted CVs every chance he got and every time he was promised a call that never came.

“Shame hey,” she said, “Let’s hope something comes up.”

He smiled and thanked her. She could not stay long because it was a busy day and two of the other girls had not shown up for work. They hugged again before he let her go.

One day, he thought as he watched her go back inside, I will make this girl the queen of the world.

When she was gone he took his backpack off and rummaged through it for his earphones. He did not own a smart phone, but last year one of his oldest expat friends had sent him a second generation eBook reader as a gift. It doubled as a music player, and since it did not fit in his pockets he put all the songs he had on a playlist and concealed it in his backpack. He had made a hole at the top of the bag through which his earphones came out. He played Lovemore Majaivana’s hit song ‘Umoya Wami’, then zipped up the bag, slung it over his shoulders, and put on his earphones. It was undoubtedly one of his favourite songs, and he was enjoying himself as he sang along. The opening lyrics of the song told a story of how Majee – as his loyal fans called him – missed his home town: Bulawayo. KoNtuthuziyathunqa – the place of billowing smoke.

As he ambled towards Belmont, Lungile wondered if the city still deserved this moniker. In the days when the song was released, the city was the country’s industrial hub and it was because of this that it got its nickname. There was no billowing smoke now. Most companies had left for the capital city or simply given up. Belmont was deserted. A few of the premises opened on Sundays for those churches that could afford to rent space for their services. It seemed as if churches were the new industry. It was a pity that they only fed the mouths of the pastors and their families. Lungile was deep in thought when the aroma of freshly baked biscuits wafted into his nostrils. He smiled. Lobel’s was one of the few resilient companies that remained. He remembered his mother telling him stories of how, when she worked for a textile company in her youth, she and a few other workmates would sit out on the grass in front of the bakery and inhale until they were full. She called it the Famous Lobel’s Air-pie. He had visited Lobel’s with his CV before. The lady at the reception had simply taken his envelope and thanked him. There was no promise of a call, and none was received. Lungile kept walking.

His music player was set to shuffle, and when ‘Umoya Wami’ ended the next song brought a complete change. It was a song by a popular American band. Another of his favourites. He bobbed his head to the lyrics as he continued his excursion in to the country’s most famous ghost town. He had done the rounds before, each time carefully selecting companies where even the slightest sign of activity was. It was hard to tell sometimes. Even some of the ones that were still functional seemed deserted from afar, with weeds commandeering the driveway along with the rest of the premises. Where there was nothing happening he always knew because there were trees growing where they would not normally be allowed to, and there were locks on the gates that looked older than Lungile cared to imagine.

He stopped just outside what was once The Standard Chartered Bank in Belmont. The bank had moved out of the building long ago, yet those who travelled by public transport still asked to be dropped off at the Standard. Though the lettering had been removed the words ‘Standard Chartered’ were permanently tattooed on the faded wall. On the wall nearest the door hung a smaller sign for whatever company had moved in. Lungile opened the door and let himself in. The new company had not bothered to redesign the inside. You could still see the booths where the tellers would have been. Only the back offices where occupied. A short man in an old-fashioned summer shirt sat in the first office. He was struggling to stay awake behind his computer and he jumped up at the sight of Lungile, glad to have a customer to serve. He grinned ear to ear and shook Lungile’s hand vigorously when he greeted him.

“Good afternoon, Sir. I’ve come to leave my CV.”

The short man’s grin did not fade. He reached out for the envelope, “Let me see!”

His eyes darted from left to right and back again as he perused Lungile’s documents. He seemed to be enjoying himself and Lungile waited patiently for a few minutes.

“Ahaaa!” he said when he was done, “You I.T. boys! You want to come here and start blocking everything huh?”

Lungile chuckled and assured Summer-Shirt that he had no desire to block anything. He just wanted to work. Summer-Shirt was not convinced. He then told Lungile about an I.T. Manager he had worked with at another company that had since closed down.

“You should have seen Mrs Ncube’s little boy – that’s what we called him when he wasn’t around. He was such a nuisance! Everything was linked to his machine and one time I saw a guy’s machine switch off right in the middle of a video he was showing me on the internet. When he switched it on again it wouldn’t log him in. Turned out the poor bastard had been fired!” He laughed before continuing, “Anyway, Mrs Ncube’s little boy blocked everything. We couldn’t even play CDs and for the longest time we weren’t allowed to access the internet.”

Lungile laughed and smiled respectfully. You never knew who you were talking to so you had to be as polite as possible. Eventually Summer-Shirt put Lungile’s CV in the IN tray on his desk and said the company would call if anything came up.

“Story of my life!” Lungile muttered as he walked back onto the street. He put his earphones on then promptly took them off again. The song that was playing was a sad one in which a woman asked her son if he would take care of her when his father was gone. Lungile’s own father had passed away years ago, and the lyrics stung him because he was unable to take care of his mother. There was no point in depressing himself further. Instead he lit the cigarette he had stubbed earlier and walked on ignoring the sun’s heat. He had already sweated through his shirt and he was sure he stunk but he had to go on. He still had a lot of envelopes in his backpack. He knew he would be hearing a lot more promises of calls that would not come but it was better to try than to sit around feeling sorry for himself.

Three hours, two and a half cigarettes later he came to an old meat processing company’s office at the end of Dullop Rd in Donnington. By then he was low on energy. He had been all over Belmont and Donnington dropping CVs wherever he saw people. Earlier he had been impressed by how well taken care of the premises at Delta Beverages were and he was secretly hoping they would be the one company that actually called him. He had one last envelope in his backpack and after he dropped it he would make his way back into town to meet Samantha after she knocked off.

His shoes were covered in dust. Some of it had soiled the legs of his trousers up to the shin. He would have to wash them when he got home. He pulled the envelope out of his bag as he approached the gate. The yard seemed well kept. An old security guard sat in the cubicle just inside. Lungile greeted the old man, who stood up and approached the gate, his face a mask of curiosity.

“Hello, young man, how can I assist you?” he inquired.

Lungile told the old man he was looking for work. The old man looked at him and smiled ruefully.

“Let me show you something,” he said, before disappearing into his cubicle. Lungile waited. The old man reappeared carrying an old office dustbin. It was made of metal and it reminded Lungile of the ones his former schoolteachers kept near their desks. It was filled with envelopes and sheets of used bond paper. The old man rummaged through the bin’s contents as he spoke, “These are all the CVs that have come in this month. I have watched kids like you bring them in, and I have seen these thrown away the very same day. I doubt anyone even opens them.”

He pulled out three envelopes that were still sealed and held them out to Lungile.

“You see? I don’t want to lie to you and I don’t want to waste your time. There is nothing here.”

Lungile was dumbstruck. Some of the CVs in the bin bore the logos of the biggest universities in the country, the one he had attended among them. He stared at the old man.

“Why do you want a job anyway?” the guard asked. Lungile had not found his tongue, so the old man continued, “Let me show you something else.”

He returned to his cubicle and brought out an old copy of Farmer’s Weekly Magazine. It had seen better days, but was still intact. On the cover there was a man in green overalls standing next to a huge ox and looking very pleased. The guard flipped through the magazine until he found the page he wanted, then he held it up and showed it to Lungile.

“Tell me, son, what do you see here?”

Lungile looked at the picture, then back at the guard.

“Take your time and look,” the old man encouraged, slightly waving the magazine.

He was looking at a dry veld. The grass had been scorched almost black by the sun. A few zebra, along with a foal, stood in a clearing in the middle of the veld. Lungile stared at the picture. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the guard smiling encouragingly at him. He scanned the picture from left to right; up and down. He had almost given up when he finally saw it.

“There is a lion in the grass! Right behind the Zebra!”

The old guard laughed. He flipped through the pages and asked Lungile where he hailed from.

“My people come from Plumtree,” Lungile told him.

“Excellent, young man from Plumtree! Sometimes in life you have to look beyond the obvious. And fortunately for you Plumtree is a great area for this.”

He had opened a page that had a picture of goats and he held the magazine up to Lungile again.

“If it’s money you want, young man from Plumtree, this is the way to do it,” he tapped a particularly plump goat with his index finger and fixed his eyes on Lungile. “The problem with you young guys is that you all want to be the big boss in some office job but there is so much more! How much does a goat cost?”

Lungile did not know, but he speculated that it might cost around sixty dollars.

“And how much does it cost to raise one?” the old man asked.

Again Lungile did not know.

The old man smiled patiently and continued, “Let’s assume you buy a goat at $60 dollars like you say. If you buy a male and a female goat they will cost you $120. Now, that is quite a bit of money, but who ever started a business for free? Anyway, once you have your two goats, young man from Plumtree, you can breed these and raise them at a relatively low cost, considering all the grassland in your home area, right?”

Lungile nodded slowly and the old man spoke again, “Obviously you would need vaccines and maybe every now and then you might want to buy specialised feed, but a goat’s gestation period is about 5 months. Think how many goats you would have in a few years. All for the cost of two goats, and you would be selling them, as you said, at around $60 dollars, wouldn’t you? What do you think?”

He shut his book and eyed Lungile. Lungile said nothing. Up to that point he had never thought about anything like that and it was difficult for him to come up with a response. The old man was still smiling at him.

“Everything you need to make money in this world, young man from Plumtree, is right at your fingertips. You just have to look.”

They stood and chatted a few minutes more. The old man came from Matopos. He had worked on farms for most of his life but he had been forced to leave that profession behind when the economy was at its worst. His sons were in South Africa, but he had to find work as a guard to support his wife and a couple of younger daughters. He had begun to raise goats at his rural home in Matopos, and he was hopeful that soon he would leave this life behind. But for now he would keep on working.

Eventually Lungile had to bid him farewell. He could not afford to linger any longer. If he was late Samantha would have his head. The old man wished him luck and returned to his cubicle, where he sat down and continued to read his magazine with a smile on his face. Lungile put on his earphones as he walked away. Somehow the shuffle setting on his music player had found its way back to ‘Umoya Wami’. Lungile stopped and pulled the eBook reader out of his bag. He enabled the repeat function and continued on his way. He thought about the old security guard as he re-joined the road that connected Bulawayo and his father’s hometown of Plumtree. He sang along to the lyrics of the song, wishing he had saved his last cigarette for the walk back into town.

‘If they would build factories,

We would go back and work

In the place of billowing smoke.

If they would build organisations,

Then we would go back and work

Beneath the billowing smoke.

If they would build us houses,

Then we would go on back

And take care of our folks

In the place of billowing smoke.’

Lyrics translated from Lovemore Majaivana’s ‘Umoya Wami.’

Author Image by Ya-Sibo? Media

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