The Fig Tree and the Wasp
It was 1979 and I had just started primary school. That summer was the first time I witnessed what later became known as iskokotsha, a craze that would, in the euphoria of a newly independent Zimbabwe, trigger the focus of motion in popular dance to snake decisively, seductively, up the body, from the feet to the hips – a sex pantomime of outrageously suggestive moves that enthralled our young nation for the decade to come.
Being onomatopoeic, iskokotsha is derived partly from the beat of the snare-drum rim and the appropriate twirling of the body to that rhythm. The dance takes on a fuller character when understood by its other name, kongonya, which alludes to the carefree, if not contemptuously deliberate, rhythm in the gait of a large stubborn animal.
The day I first saw the dance was the day we had expected to end with the execution of my maternal grandfather.
Across the country and in my mother’s home village of Monde, ten kilometres outside of Victoria Falls, the war was drawing to a conclusion and the principles and ideals of the guerrillas had become frazzled. Where they once asked villagers for food, they now made demands; where they had sought to operate by consent, they now issued ultimatums. On the military front, because the Rhodesian Army tortured and killed people for intelligence about them, the guerrillas’ response came in the form of a blizzard of reprisals that were meant to keep communities silent. Soon entire villages were living in terror of both the army and the guerrillas. Their orders and demands were beyond questioning by then – at least that was how everyone understood it. Everyone except my grandfather.
He was only a week out of prison, having served ten years for collaborating with the guerrillas, and he must have been genuinely or wilfully unaware of the new order, or perhaps he was simply still possessed of an inmate’s pointless recalcitrance. So when word was sent that it was the turn of the Mnkandla family and a few others to offer food towards the pungwe (the night-long rally that ‘the boys’ had called) and my grandfather sent back apologies that the family could not afford to give anything this time round, the stage was set for him to take the role of intransigent geriatric in the finest Nguni tradition.
The word that got back to the guerrillas was that there were some uncooperative families needing a ‘gentle’ reminder of how things were supposed to work. This was, after all, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) that was being slapped in the face.
A little less than an hour after my grandfather sent back the mujibhas (the young villagers who acted as scouts and messengers), half a dozen combatants accompanied by an equal number of mujibhas appeared on the brow of the hill that lay in front of the homestead. My uncle Elliot, also visiting with his wife at the time, got up to meet them amid a cacophony of dogs barking. On the veranda with us, my grandmother must have been regretting having let my grandfather have his way. A bit of beef or goat meat was not such a high price anyway, if the alternative was her husband’s death.
By the time the half-dozen khaki-uniformed guerrillas got to the veranda, they were unequivocal in the pointing of their AK47s.The old man was ordered to get up and head for the kraal, where they were going to make an example of him. He obliged and stood up, picking up his Tonga stool. He would not need it, he was told. But by now, having already switched to honest-to-goodness stubbornness, he refused to relinquish his seat. As he was led away, the grownups were probably already thinking of the aftermath, of picking up the pieces. My grandmother and mother had long ceased to respond to my little brothers’ tugging and clinging to their frocks. Uncle Elliot, though probably feeling his bowels loosening, still had it in him to order the mujibhas away. They pretended to leave but scurried back to hide behind the log-wall granary, their faces occasionally poking out from behind a corner. They were ready to scamper across the hills to tell all that Munyatheli Mnkandla was finally finished.
After an endless hour during which everyone waited to hear the conclusive crack of an AK47, we saw the guerrillas head back to the homestead. Their guns were slung across their backs, one of them was carrying my grandfather’s stool while the other helped him totter along on his walking stick. This time they greeted my grandmother as sons of the house, offered their heartfelt apologies and handed back my grandfather’s prison papers which they had requested half an hour earlier. In accordance with custom, the guerrillas introduced themselves, kinship was sought from both sides and it turned out that one of them shared the surname ‘Maphosa’ with my grandmother – she instantly became his aunt. Soon plans were afoot to relocate the pungwe to Mnkandla’s home, but in the meantime the gramophone was taken out of the house and placed on the veranda.
Now, having loosened up, our newfound relations leapt into their dancing personas. On the turntable was a record which would lodge in my memory so that in the years to come, whenever I saw its zebra-emblazoned red label going round and round, I would be spun back to that afternoon. It was ‘Jungle Jive’, the township music hit number by Fast Fingers. Rifles slung across their backs and caps now tucked, half hanging out, into the rear pockets of their combat trousers, each of the guerrillas plunged into the music, quickly falling into rhythm with the constant knock of the snare drum and twirling the lower half of the body in the most suggestive and improper manner. At the front, what looked suspiciously like a small bag of onions jiggled through the khaki trousers, rocking the hips back, while at the rear a cap flapped, mischievously slapping the bum into the other court. The music, with its kwela pennywhistle origins, was not exactly the kind that went with iskokotsha, but its beat worked perfectly – or the combatants simply violated it into submission. And so in the dry, hot, motionless mid-afternoon air of Monde, ‘Jungle Jive’ was humped. Too embarrassed to watch this, my grandmother together with Uncle Elliot’s wife, MaSibanda, and my mother cackled their way to the safety of the kitchen hut. Mnkandla, on his Tonga stool, watched his boys tilling the air as a grin verging on the undignified threatened to undo all his good work of the preceding hour.
The story has become tangled up with time, but family lore – variations of the story as told by Elliot – has it that the old man had played a high-stakes game that could easily have blown up in his face had his nerve failed. While being led to the tree that had been chosen as the site of his execution, his opening gambit had been to ask the guerrillas who their commander, or ‘cwommander’ as he pronounced it, was. He wanted to talk to their cwommander because now that they were executing him on the basis of malevolent hearsay, tomorrow the same hearsay would lead them unwittingly to execute their commander-in-chief, Joshua Nkomo, whom ‘… I left behind in jail paying a high price for you boys’.
Of course he had not been in the same jail as Nkomo, but that revelation and what must have been a perplexing absence of fear on the face of this pipe-sucking old fuckup on his Tonga stool threw the would-be executioners off. The guerrillas lost their poise and said they had left their commander back where the pungwe was to be held. And so Mnkandla, a spirit medium and herbalist, reached for the initiative in the manner of a visiting grandfather plucking his expensive hat off the head of a badly brought up grandson who had snatched it off the old knee to start the game. Deploying the full oratory force of a venerable custodian of tradition, he put it to them that since their cwommander was on the other side of the village, he, Munyatheli Mnkandla, was by default presently their cwommander and was ordering them to leave a couple of their fellows guarding him, if need be, and to go and bring their cwommander here. Now! Soon, the law was laid down and an ethical order that had existed a decade earlier reimposed: freedom fighters operate in the area by consent, they do not make demands for food but accept whatever people can afford. And so followed the process of verifying who this peculiar old man was, culminating with the boys humping a kwela number in the screaming daylight.
Later that same year, soon after a ceasefire had been declared, we again visited my grandparents during the school holidays. I had accompanied Cwommander Mnkandla and his smoking pipe on a walk around the village when we were called over by a group of guerrillas. Obviously still distrustful of the ceasefire, they were concealed behind thick foliage over which the canopy of a gnarly old fig tree hung still, swarmed by fig wasps and with the aroma of overripe figs tangible a good distance away. The guerrillas started off as expected: Is it OK on that side of the village? Who are those people who spent the night at the Moyo family homestead? As had now become customary, joviality followed: Come on, spare us some of that tobacco of yours, old man. My grandfather could command from the guerrillas a degree of the deference reserved for elders but not enough to stop them getting distracted by the occasional maiden strolling serenely down the path with a bucket of water or firewood on her head, pretending to have seen nothing because to see something then had come to mean being a potential witness, a burden that still held the whiff of death. On the part of the guerrillas, probably sex-starved and certainly driven by procreative urges after years of living amid death, the temptation to wolf-whistle was apparent but resisted – carelessness could see comrades perish.
And so followed a spell in which my grandfather had to fend off questions about talismans for luring girls. He protested, saying what they were looking for was something that only Malawians and other exotic peoples knew how to do. As pointed as their bayonets, the carnal desires of these young men, who out of necessity had spent years living beyond the reach of their traditional social norms, would shape those of the nation.
We departed with a handful of figs which, on our way back home, my grandfather eagerly introduced me to. Two decades later, I would come to know about the uniqueness of the fig tree. Over millennia, the fig tree has developed a co-evolutional relationship with the fig wasp: the wasp cross-pollinates the plant and can only perpetuate itself through the plant’s fruit. The female wasp lays its eggs inside a fig, the eggs hatch and the larvae develop into adults. The females, who are winged, do not possess the big jaws required to gnaw their way out of the fruit, while the males, who possess tearaway jaws, are wingless. At this point a dubious compromise is struck: each male tunnels his way to the skin of the fruit and then crawls back to lead the female up the new tunnel, but before she can escape completely, he grabs her in a final desperate act of coitus, deposits his seed and then, exhausted, allows her to fly away. With all the females having escaped to lay their eggs elsewhere and propagate the species, the fig fruit rots and, at the whisper of a breeze, obligingly breaks loose and plunges down to earth, taking the male wasps with it.
In 1980, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the country woke to the full impact of the cultural tremors that had flattened much of sub-Saharan Africa: the boys and girls from the bhundu (the bush), as the guerrillas were called, brought iskokotsha from their training grounds in Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. A new way of being had arrived. They emerged from the bhundu hot-stepping to the Zambian copper-belt sounds of Dr N. P. Kazembe & his Super Mazembe, Tanzania’s Orchestra Super Mazembe and others – all of them mutations of Cuban rumba-inspired sounds from the Congos.
These ex-combatants revelled in being strangers among their own people: on the street, at the beer garden or in the shebeen. Here they were, with a glint of danger, revolution and a new exoticism from north of the Zambezi. The way they moved on the dance floor made people sit up – they had to decipher this language, to learn new ways. You are one thing today and then, in this new tomorrow, as old notions of the self fall away like masks of mud-cake and turn to dust, you are something else, someone else. At least that seemed to be the case. Iskokotsha arrived and people found, to their amazement, that they too could do it; it seemed inconceivable that beyond pantomime, words would be necessary. With iskokotsha, faces would light up with recognition, yet no one could actually name what it was that they recognized. Then again maybe, with hindsight, people left unmentioned what they recognized here because, as the girls walking past us and the guerrillas by that fig tree had made clear: whatever had the shadow of death behind it, we pretended not to see. We could not be witnesses. We had, in Zimbabwe, found a way of acting out our sexual urges but not a way of talking about the more difficult questions around sex, my mother would say a few years later. By then the dance had taken on a life of its own and was now a far cry from its freedom-fighter origins.
In early 1982, my father had just been promoted to officer-in-charge and transferred to head a police station in the small town of West Nicholson. The family had to uproot and follow him. The country was caught in an exhilarating maelstrom of change and mythmaking: Zimbabwe had been delivered, the nation was free. Salisbury had become Harare, Essexvale became Esigodini, Victoria Falls briefly became Mosi-oa-Tunya before reverting back to Victoria Falls, and each guerrilla made a personal decision whether or not to shed his or her nom de guerre. My family, not to be left out, soon had an American pit bull named Marx. That was when, for the first time, the blur of hip motion that was iskokotsha came into our house, brought by our new housemaid, Silingiwe, much to the consternation of my mother who made it clear she did not want to see ‘that kind of thing’ in the house.
It is probably accurate to say that it was in 1982 that I became aware of the potential of iskokotsha as shorthand for social survival. Silingiwe was capable of displaying near Victorian propriety one minute and being impossibly exhibitionist the next. She would be the most proper maid in front of important guests, but as she got to know the family better there would be those times when in the kitchen, with my mother out of sight, she would show my brothers and me, in exaggeratedly slow motion, the techniques behind iskokotsha: legs astride and back arched in a posture that short-circuited my adolescent brain and rendered me mute. Her hips would turn into a riveting kinetic spectacle as the snappy sounds of a Four Brothers tune urged her into taking the horse-riding position on an imaginary pleasure chair, surrendering in absolute abandonment to that primitive delight that reaches its pinnacle in the spellbinding stretch of music where the essential elements in both song and dancer are revealed: the song is pared down to the staccato rhythm of the snare drum and a hypnotic snaking guitar line, while the dancer, no longer of this world, pulsates to a most naked instinct. In this way, she would later find street cred in the eyes of my mother and her friends.
Surrounded by ranches and gold mines, West Nicholson was a small town organized around the canning and mining industries – canned beef, Fray Bentos, Oxo and gold were what it produced and freighted to the rest of the country. Culturally it punched way above its weight, attracting virtually every significant band or musician in the country. It was here, in the beer gardens, shebeens and community halls, where the legend of a young man popularly known as ‘Screw Vet’ was whispered. This was someone to whom even Silingiwe sat up and paid attention when he took to the dance floor.
Screw Vet was in his early twenties. He was one of the groundsmen at West Nicholson Primary School (where my brothers and I were enrolled) and blessed with an athletic body sculptured by manual labour. Had he had enough in his wardrobe to choose from, he would have been a dandy. As it was, most of the time he was seen in his gumboots, a white vest tucked into his flannel trousers which in turn were unfailingly tucked into his boots. This was his trademark outfit throughout the year. He took great care with his trousers – they were always immaculately ironed, with a crease on each leg sharp enough to sever in two any fly that made the mistake of landing on them.
People were mildly amused and took him for an eccentric and semiliterate young manual labourer. But all of this is not why Screw Vet made an indelible mark on my memory. Obsessive about his looks, affected and semiliterate as he was, when it came to what mattered – iskokotsha – Screw Vet was peerless.
The beer gardens and shebeens were the domain of many Screw Vets and Silingiwes, the young men and women who worked as housemaids, gardeners and cooks or at the factory, who lived for their end-of-month pay packages and the chance to unburden themselves at the local joint or shebeen. At the beer hall, the patrons drank traditional beer while the jukebox delivered the tunes. Down the road, the shebeen queen spun sounds off her gramophone and served bottled beer – either way, the gyrating patrons were only a solicitous wiggle of the hips from getting their claws on the object of their desires while those with less coordinated bodies suffered a social death. And in that way the new pop slogan, yekel’ omunye wena uzamdabulela! – ‘let go of the other or you’ll ruin his/her clothes!’ – was heard on the radio and, later, ‘Wapenga Nayo Bonus’, the Four Brothers’ hit that encapsulated the monetary and moral extravagance that went with pay days. It was here, in these places of excess, when nature turned and its curse fell like a scythe on these young lives, that the fate of a fig wasp would seem an infinitely better alternative. For in the fig-wasp world, when all the girls have flown away to lay their eggs elsewhere and propagate the species, the fig fruit only goes down with the boys. In the world of men, when the rot set into the compounds and townships, it spared neither sex. Big jawed or winged, they all came down in the silent darkness of their fruit.
Because iskokotsha took hold in the rural population long before it found a following in the urban areas, it was often portrayed as a particularly bawdy rural aberration. Dance was supposed to be charming. But more often people were torn between surrendering to the possibilities of self-discovery that the new dance held or dismissing it as the preserve of people with no self-control. At least that seemed to be the case with my mother and the new friends she was making in West Nicholson, especially when Silingiwe took to showing off her talents in front of them. A line had to be drawn somewhere.
Usually my mother would invite her friends to our house and they would spend the afternoon in the gazebo, drinking tea and making womanly talk. It was probably the eagerness to see these new friendships blossom that made her plant a wireless radio on the table. This is how Silingiwe ended up there among these women. She would take a shawl, roll it up and tie it around her waist – accentuating the gyrations of her hips. When it got to the part of the song where she had to go down on a beat, she would trigger shrieks of disgusted delight among the women. The spectacle of Silingiwe seemingly grinding her crotch onto an imaginary figure famously had MaNcube, the only smoker among the women, lighting the wrong end of her cigarette. Fracture their ribs with laughter as they may have done, what each of them recognized in the dance was never something to be put into words.
With time, my mother, a nurse, became concerned for Silingiwe’s health – the picture coming out of the hospital wards was bleak: these were stories of once robust neighbours now reduced to skeletal shadows of themselves. The deep-lying natural rhythms of existence – of people begetting children by whom they would be buried at the end of their lives – were fractured. This illness took no account of that tradition. Now, even the rising and setting of the sun seemed uncertain as parents grew accustomed to burying their children.
And since the general attitude was to avoid HIV tests – the rationale being that a bad result could deprive you of your happy-go-lucky spirit – this was only the tip of the iceberg, epidemiologists warned. The fashionable euphemisms that now crowded the condolence columns of newspapers were of state functionaries or prominent businesspeople dying of ‘a long illness’, ‘pneumonia’, ‘meningitis’ and ‘tuberculosis’. The preceding years had allowed a new freedom – if you caught an STD, you got treated at the hospital and came back to play. The popular refrain among the young women then was ‘… I don’t suck a lollipop that’s still inside a wrapper’, meaning that a condom was simply a nonstarter. This had also been one of Silingiwe’s favourite battle cries as she threw herself at some tune during the day, when my parents were at work. But when it came to talking about the new disease which, unlike gonorrhoea or syphilis, could not be treated, my mother complained that Silingiwe simply clammed up. It was then that my mother said we had in Zimbabwe found a way of acting out our sexual fantasies but not a way of talking about sexual health. I guess if my mother had had her way, public health policy in the 1980s would have revolved around talking, talking and more talking until people were at ease talking about sex. But instead of conversation, the devastation of those unprecedented deaths coming so soon after our liberation seemed to have us all in the grip of a national seizure. Our old selves, cast off, had turned to dust and no longer afforded us refuge. Any chance of survival rested on learning new ways and training our tongues to articulate what had, by consensus, until now, remained taboo.
The leisure centre in West Nicholson was a large estate comprising the community hall, the beer hall, the outdoor cinema and the sports field. This was where the rituals of the new nation were enacted: official holidays marking, in turn, Independence Day, Heroes Day, Africa Day, Workers Day. My father was normally the point man for the government officials who came to address the crowd on these occasions. And of course we, my mother and the rest of us, were expected to attend.
The ceremonies started midmorning with a grand speech, usually followed by a police and army display. Sometimes the air force would fly by in Alouette helicopters and thrill the crowds with re-enacted battle manoeuvres. Then there would be free food and beer for everyone and a football match followed by a band concert in the community hall. Here, the celebrated Screw Vet would reveal the full orbital range of his magic: gumboots, white vest and trousers with their famous fly-wasting blades. He would walk across the dance floor and the entire hall would erupt.
These were days when waiting for a concert to start was like waiting for the rains – the concert time on the poster only served as an indicator but when the band would actually appear onstage was anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, someone would be spinning records through the PA system, and because people were quite intoxicated by then, these warm-p exercises easily degenerated into full-scale contests with people challenging each other on the dance floor.
We had heard that he could dance, but to me and my family Screw Vet was just the slightly odd groundsman at my school who, due to concerns about snakes, occasionally came to drive us away from the mulberry orchard. But here in the community hall, as we waited for the band, Screw Vet, in that disinterested and enigmatic manner of immense talents, waved the crowd away and prowled towards the exit, not to be seen again until the concert was in full swing. When he reappeared the hall swelled with anticipation, clearing the way for him. Screw Vet was transformed from dandy wheelbarrow pusher to eminent star. This time he would do his thing to a cover of ‘Shauri Yako’, Orchestra Super Mazembe’s sprawling hit number that offered ample scope for anyone to transport themselves beyond the horizons that hemmed in everyday life. When he stamped his authority on his territory, it was with awe-inspiring grace and style that his hips swirled, syncopated by singularly coarse and wilful stabs. Perhaps only on his waist lay the possibility of a hulahoop being held in a blur of infinite motion. The techniques that we had known from Silingiwe took on another character and even she would sit still and watch because with Screw Vet it suddenly dawned on you that it is not the size of the swing that you put into the hips that mattered but the hip that you put into the swing, the cool that was inscribed in its many variations into the dance – the impatient lover’s backward throw of the head, the oversexed brute rocking around with an imaginary female impaled on his phallus, the considerate lover grinding down his hips with staggering care.
At the end of the song Screw Vet would get his white hanky out of his pocket, wipe his forehead with a flourish and vanish, leaving the men and older women shaking their heads, the nubile chasing after him, and the band picking up the pieces of their concert. Screw Vet demonstrated the power of iskokotsha to deliver women at his feet and the cynics whispered from the margins: Yah! All those women. How long before we hear that this boy excavated his grave with his penis?
In 1989 Cwommander Mnkandla died. This was also the year my family left West Nicholson for Esigodini where we would live briefly before finally moving back to Bulawayo. Silingiwe stayed behind in West Nicholson and we all missed her, speculating about what she could be possibly be doing with her life, whether she was well. Of course this kind of speculation invariably extended to Screw Vet in some shape or form, never mind that we did not know him personally. And some of those concerns about Silingiwe and Screw Vet were ones that we dared not dwell on for too long lest we jinxed them. They were creatures of that era and perhaps instead of impotent concern for their future, one way to honour their memory and let go would have been to turn to Richard Francis Burton: ‘We dance along Death’s icy brink, / but is the dance less full of fun?’
By that year, every town in the country had its urban legends of shebeen girls who went about helping themselves to other women’s husbands; tired tales of promiscuous men who contracted the incurable disease elsewhere and brought the illness home to their spouses. It looked as if that era was on its way out. But there were, presumably, shenanigans going on at Esigodini Police Station and for some reason my father’s secretary decided to do my mother a favour, calling her to say that one of the other secretaries in the office had her eye on my father. She was young, my father’s secretary, just the other side of twenty-five. What she had not counted on was that my mother did not believe that people would do her favours for no apparent reason. Profanities that I never thought my mother capable of uttering issued from my parents’ bedroom that evening, but the roof of the house held down. My mother prevailed. In the morning she asked my father to bring his secretary home with him after work. Once the poor girl had been delivered, my mother took her to the master bedroom. My father’s brother was visiting then and I was with him when my father, visibly shaken, came to join us in the lounge.
After about half an hour my mother emerged from the bedroom, went out to the garden and came back not with a stick, but what looked like an entire tree. My father and his brother knew better than to try to stop her. And so she set about working on the unfortunate girl. My father’s secretary was obviously the sort who internalized things, expressing neither pain nor pleasure. Still, sporadic moans and yelps could be heard. It was supposed to be some variation of tough love, at least those were the cultural pretensions, but you knew that victim and torturer had swapped roles and that thankfully there were no electrodes or such instruments lying about in the house.
My father became increasingly jittery. He begged his brother to go and intervene; being a guest he stood a chance of being respected, but even he was not quite sure how to handle my mother and turned to me instead: ‘B., can’t you go and stop your mother? She’ll hurt her.’ This would have been funny if not for the fact that someone was having it bad in there. Me trying to stop my mother was a laughable proposal – she would dismiss me with a single contemptuous glare. Eventually my father gathered the courage to rescue the young lady and she was in a state when she emerged. At least my mother had restricted herself to the girl’s legs, and so her stockings looked almost magnificent, in that other way.
In the lounge, this being no time to open a cold bottle of beer, my father, tireless music collector that he was, went down to sit on the floor by the hi-fi – the spot on which he had spent many evenings lying with his headphones on while his supper went cold, much to the irritation of my mother. As he and his brother fumbled about for conversation, he flipped through his collection, putting aside his old favourites: Victoria Jazz Band, Wendo Kolosoy, Grand Kallé, Docteur Nico and Tabu Ley. Then he started playing them one after another until he tired, sat on the sofa and left Victoria Jazz Band to play on again and again: one of those numbers that, like the Zambezi, starts off shallow, turns and meanders at length while the snare drum obligingly counts each yard, goes through rapids, down the falls, acquires ferocious energy, twirls and narrows as it eats its way through rock, assumes still and trembling depths, and finally, its murderous urge ebbing away, widens up and flows gently into a larger body of water. At least such was the sense of calm when a few hours later my mother and father, emotionally exhausted, lay on opposite sofas fast asleep while my uncle smoked a cigarette and I played with my brothers in the garden. Maybe for my family it was then that the curtain came down on the preceding decade, with my parents at ease with each other and the memories of Cwommander Mnkandla, Silingiwe, Screw Vet and the legacy of iskokotsha gently floating away into the larger pool of human experience.