By Tafi Mhaka
About 32 years after leaving Hallingbury Primary School in Harare, I find myself going back to Mrs Barry, my much-loved and graceful Grade 7 teacher, for clearer understanding on our ongoing and painful march to social glory and economic emancipation.
I find myself recalling excruciating sweet and innocent memories of old companions like Zviko, who have passed on while living in the UK, and wonder how and why Gushungo had many of us rushing to leave for the social and economic safety of foreign lands.
I find myself indulging in the dark joy of reliving special, indelible moments, filled with wholesome fun, while searching for unequivocal clarity on questionable policies, mean occurrences and startling accusations of racism – once again, unfortunately, all through the continuing legacy of an old and kind lady, whom I remember extremely well, and with the kind of fondness that I characteristically reserve for family and close friends.
Short, bespectacled and slightly stocky, our one and only Mrs Barry wasn’t just an excellent and caring teacher to us all, she was someone I could relate to, someone who inculcated hope in us all, despite our varied cultural backgrounds, and nullified racial divisions with pleasant and voluntary gusto.
And she was someone who always shared and spread a generous sense of authority and compassion that typified the glorious enthusiasm the new non-racial times held back then.
So, I saw no whiteness within Mrs Barry’s existence, and found no Rhodesian, English or alien character that could have obscured the Africanness within in me – and I never ever witnessed disguised hatred or racial uneasiness slide through her professional conduct towards us all.
And I truly can’t recall a moment where I felt distressed because of the undeniable social truths the black skin and black experiences I carried with to school every day exuded.
I, together with all of my classmates, was inspired by the abundance of unconstrained optimism nourishing our scholarly growth, even though we had a multicultural nation to build from the ashes of war and racial distrust.
I had family who had been to war: fortunately, my uncles, Moses and Gift, and Enoch, a nephew, had made it back from the war safe and sound. And I had family who were serving in the security forces.
I drifted between two distinct worlds, that which the haves inhabited – the urban middle-class world represented in Bulawayo, Gweru, Mutare and Harare – and the world of the disadvantaged: the harsh world where the disenfranchised masses subsisted on melodramatic ideology and empty confidence. This was the world our family knew all too well.
Through no fault of theirs many of my relatives suffered hard and challenging lives where the basics were never guaranteed. They had jobs – low paid, short-lived contractual work – as handymen, maids, shop assistants and security guards.
They couldn’t afford to buy much for themselves and lived in small, shabby dwellings located in places such as Mbare, Tafara and Glen View. But I never sensed they blamed anyone for the economic setbacks and subsequent social immobility they experienced after Gushungo became Prime Minister in 1980.
And so I assumed a character for each distinctive world I inhabited, whether I was visiting Enoch and his girlfriend in a one-roomed lodging in Highfields, spending time with Joseph at Gazaland, herding cattle for Gogo in Seke Communal Lands, doing chores for Mbuya Mhaka in Watsomba, or answering social studies questions in class on a Friday morning.
I subconsciously balanced the two worlds with the clear understanding that although everyone should have had a decent home, an equal voice and equal rights in all spheres of the newly independent life our emancipation had ushered in, many less fortunate folks lived through the first two decades of our independence in very tough circumstances and died in the desperate and painful discomfort only broken souls and dilapidated homes could comfortably shelter.
This is what independence had amounted to in the aftermath of an encouraging start on April 18 1980: an assortment of wasted opportunities amid appropriated dreams, crushed freedoms and fragile happiness.
I saw Babamunini Bernard and his unfortunate family suffer devastating poverty, without satisfactory care from a government that had betrayed the values of the struggle, and slowly and quietly acknowledged how calculated deceitfulness is the verified bedrock of political ambition, social inaction and economic injustice.
I saw a hero of mine, Babamunini Never, manhandle, verbally abuse and slap his beautiful and confident wife over the right to go to a Thomas Mapfumo concert on a Saturday evening and worked out the struggle we all must fight extended beyond political underhandedness and violence and weighed heavily on tackling outdated cultural beliefs that target young girls and women.
And I sensed that I never had to trust anyone (of whatever shade) through reading the Financial Gazette and Hansard (the record of parliamentary debates) every week, and grisly revelations on the Gukurahundi massacres reinforced that point much later on.
Be that is as it may, we had our own small and idealistic world at Hallingbury Primary School, one that prepared us for an uncertain future. Clad in our dark brown, old school khaki uniforms that didn’t look cool, we were family. It didn’t matter what you looked liked, or how you sounded, you were family.
Our multicultural institution on the corner of an undistinguished street off Lomagundi Road introduced us to the colourful traditions of the world that subsisted beyond the unpolished realms of our youthful imaginations and actualities visible in Sunridge, Mabelreign and Marlborough.
Playing soccer and cricket on rough-and-ready grasslands often helped to while away the afternoons. And wandering around the neighbourhood helped us discover fresh frontiers and national superstars.
We would meet Japhet “short cat” Mparutsa, then the national football team goalkeeper, walking around the neighbourhood or buying a drink at the Caltex garage in Broughton drive. We would always greet Mukoma Japhet as if we knew him well – and he was cool with our starstruck fascination, while we were definitely cool with his presence in our lives.
Besides the long, eventful walks, extracurricular activities filled our days. Dean Hopper was the sublime swimming champion. Hugo Ribatika was the playground prankster and wannabe communicator who had started honing his skills for a career on TV at an early age. Grant White was the ultimate cricketer. Evans Mapolisa was the local star football player who could weave his way past a solid defence with skilful, Maradona-like ease.
And while Enos Mbofana was a great swimmer who developed into a sublime fly half and administrator for the Zimbabwean rugby fraternity, Abraham Mparutsa was the quiet friend who could run as fast as the wind and would later form a deadly midfield combination with Victor Olonga at Plumtree High School.
And Herbert Schwamborn, a friendly, stylish and fast-talking brown skinned boy, who had a black mother and white German father, introduced us to hip-hop – although we never quite noticed how talented a wordsmith and budding musician he was.
However, the world took notice when he became a multi-platinum selling German hip-hop artist who found phenomenal success in Europe and Zimbabwe.
And that was the simple life we lived in our cohesive community: Mary was Ndebele. Tiffany was English. I was Shona. But that didn’t matter. We quite never had to time to ever believe we could be different or find fault on the basis of appearances and language. We exploited our unique experiences and miscellaneous energies and enjoyed life to the fullest with teachers like Mrs Barry guiding us.
It wasn’t just her, though: there was Mr Gotora, Mr Shokobishi, Mrs White, Mr Jacket and Mrs Mhundwa. Everyone made us feel very special, and my greatest takeaway from that seven-year long multi-ethnic journey, was that I discovered the essence of humanity and developed an ability to decipher and stand up to racism and tribalism.
Yes, it is always easier and loyal to believe that black people, who for long have been victims of white-led institutional racism, can’t be racist or tribalist in nature in this day and age. Often there is no room for common empathy across racial and ethnic lines, and the immediacy of undeclared objectives usually undermines everything else for the sake of political, social or business goals.
This could have been the central sentiment and brutal injustice that drove the Gushungo government to deny Trevor Ncube – a man born and raised in Zimbabwe, and a wholly productive and active citizen at that – a passport in 2007, on the grounds he was a “Zambian“ and an undesirable person of sorts: an enemy of the state.
It is an oft-repeated accusation that the Gushungo administration threw at people whom they disliked for one dubious reason or another and this discoloured and multifaceted bigotry has in the past ensnared Strive Masiyiwa, Pastor Evan Mawarire, Lance Guma, Henry Olonga, Andy Flower and Violet Gonda, just to name a few.
Now, you could easily add cricket coach Heath Streak to that shameful list: Zimbabwe Cricket boss Tavengwa Mukuhlani has accused Streak of racism after the former pace bowler made changes to his team in the world cup qualifiers. And way back in 2004, Mukuhlani apparently labelled Streak as somebody who is “Rhodesian in the marrow”, in terms that can only be described as classic Gushungo parlance.
Mukuhlani has gone all out to paint Streak as the towering antithesis of Mrs Barry. And we have seen such reckless slander and methodical assault surface again and again without consequence: from David Coltart to Streak. We have seen how the powerful (and crudely black, racist and tribalist) seek to dictate the flow and beauty of this life, deny individuals livelihoods and sully reputations on unsubstantiated grounds.
So if Mukuhlani can’t prove that Streak is racist: we must come down very hard on him and make it clear for all to see that such disgusting Gushungo theatrics don’t carry social currency in 2018.
And we must stand behind Streak and show all of the kids witnessing this dreadful racial blizzard that racial (and tribal) discrimination is despicable and unwanted and soils the esteemed values that underpin the multiracial society that Josiah Tongogara advocated and died for. Full stop. We must make a strong statement.
Ncube represented all compatriots, ever maligned for no worthy reason, when he declared: “I am a Zimbabwean, I think Zimbabwean, I sleep Zimbabwean, I speak Zimbabwean. I am a Zimbabwean through and through.”
That’s because the essential substance of Zimbabwean nationality is not based on race or ethnicity but countless intangibles. Yet I doubt if Mukuhlani understands this unwavering truth thousands of men and women died for fully enough.
But I know Mrs Barry, and everyone else, who welcomed the new, all-encompassing Zimbabwe in 1980, surely did. RIP Mrs Barry.