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Chinyoka on Tuesday: Zimbabwe: the village that forgot

By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka

There is a story that will never be told. A story whose heroes will not be memorialized, whose heroines will have no songs sung about them. A story whose details will only ever be pieced together through rumour, and the vague recollections of those that were the last to leave. The village.

Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
Tinomudaishe Chinyoka

It is a story about a village, nestled in a lush piece of land between two rivers. Everything that the villagers could ever want either germinated or was born there. In fact, it was said of the village that there were more riches in it than all the other villages along the rivers’  banks right down to the Great Water that is not water. And yet, there were old men and women, no longer in possession of their teeth, who spent their days hiding from the mild sun under the shade of prodigious trees who disagreed. Completely.

The truth, they said, was actually something even more daunting. The known riches of the village paled in comparison to those yet to be discovered. This, they said, was because the great Nyusa, who provided all and knew even more, wanted to ensure that future generations born to the village can also find the same largesse that their forebears found in the land. Why, they said, even daily those who look deep enough ‘discovered’ new riches. Except they don’t use the word discovered. Led to them, they said. Led.

The travelers that canoe down the rivers stop for respite. Most leave, but it is said that one lingered long. Hospitality is one of the things for which the village is renowned, and it took three generations for the village to convince these visitors that it was time to go. By the end, they had taken over the village, and when they left, the fabric of the village ethos was damaged. Torn.

It didn’t help that in discovering that the villagers though pliable wanted self determination, so the visitors also came up with a plan to leave, but having sown a spirit of blindness. No longer would the villagers see how endowed their village was, how blessed. No longer would they view their role as custodians of the village’s wealth for future generations. Never.

Rather, the spirit made them think that it was control of the village that mattered the most. It had come to the visitors from another Great Water, many moons past. The visitors said they had taken some of this spirit to their own lands, but had bent and adapted it to suit their aims. But as they left, they decreed that the village should henceforth be led by this spirit in its basic form, from those who had forged it. It must never adapt to your customs, they said. We will be watching, they added. And left.

The villagers tried this spirit, and it seemed to work. Soon, one family embedded the entire spirit, and used it to run the village. He did not allow others a chance, because he knew that would spell the end for his family. But, with the guidance of the visitors, who feted him with accolades and honours, and proclaimed him knight of their realm, he forged a new dynasty for himself. No villager could eat without it being thanks to someone from the man’s family, for example.

Suddenly, the spirit became the resource. Everyone wanted this spirit. The lands, what grew on it, what lay underneath, all paled in comparison. Who cared about stones in the dirt when the spirit is there to be taken, they thought.

Everyone wanted to tame the spirit, to forge it so that they could become like this man. He appointed and disappointed many, and that just added more allure to the spirit. It’s a demon, some people said, but they were overruled by those that swore on their ancestors that the visitors hadn’t said ‘demons’, merely ‘demos’. Demos was important, demos chose village leaders. Not demons. Demos.

In fact, so deeply embedded was this spirit that the villagers soon forgot what they had, and spent seasons upon seasons arguing over control of the village. Cycles of it. Every five years. One season they would choose the village elders. Those who lost would spend three seasons after that complaining that the choosing was unfair, that they were cheated. Two seasons after that they would focus on mobilizing enough villagers to support them in the next choosing, and in the fifth season another choosing.

Meanwhile, downriver, the visitors who had left sent emissaries with toys and other trinkets, to support all those who complained about the choosing. They sent tomes of words from their own soothsayers, who explained how thousands of years ago, in their own lands far far away, they had perfected the art of choosing. These emissaries offered to help teach the villagers how to choose, wanted to invite the departed visitors to watch the villagers choose, and to help the counting of the choosing. Choose, choose, choose. That became the only focus. Choose.

They are lying to us, a few said. Look, even in their own lands they haven’t really tamed this spirit, some said. Lies, lies and more lies, replied the emissaries of the visitors. These people are paid by the ruling elders, the emissaries said, without shame that they were paid by the visitors. Let’s issue an urgent alert to warn the departed visitors that there are rogue elements undermining the order they left, they agreed. The emissaries.

Meanwhile, the villagers were banned from selling their riches. To anyone. Until they knew how to choose, they could not trade. Until they knew how to choose properly, they were barred even from visiting certain lands of the visitors. Choose, choose, choose, everyone talking about the choosing. The one before, or the one coming. Season after season. Choose.

Meanwhile, the visitors sent robber barons. They offered that if the villagers could allow them to take some of their riches, they could in fact sell them. But because of the ban on trade, there were many intermediaries needed. So the prices at source had to be cheap of course. To cater for all the intermediaries and such. Who were these now? More visitors of course. Naturally.

The robber barons would talk about how the conditions in the village were so bad that even what they had offered to pay was used up by the cost of doing business. It’s the times, they said, paying nothing. Canoe after canoe carried the village’s riches downriver. For soil tests, they said. Nothing in the soil of course, just soil, but we must keep testing. Season after season. Testing.

So while the visitors sowed hate and ill will in their village, while brother hated brother, visitor barons robbed and raped the village, plundering it’s resources on the cheap. Or for free even. Emissaries kept coming: until you choose well, we cannot help.

To every canoe that passed, villagers not happy with the last choosing shouted: don’t stop here, please go away, we are leprous because we didn’t choose well. Without shame.  When the rivers flooded and some huts were swept away, when disease or natural catastrophe killed some villagers, they danced on their graves and said this is what happens when we don’t choose well. Funeral after funeral, even when griots of the village succumbed to old age, they carried their message of choosing.

We are friends of the visitors, they told the villagers. If you but let us run the village, the visitors will give us their wealth and we will make this place rich, they said. The wise old men and women under the shade shook their heads and wondered where it all went wrong. The visitors had no wealth but that which they stole from the village, so why were the young hankering for that which had been stolen, they wondered. But no one listened. It was these same old people that didn’t know how to choose well after all, was the reply. Always with the choosing. Always.

In the end, the villagers completely forgot their wealth, their largesse, their endowment. So many left the village. Artisans who could extract their wealth, healers who could help tend to the sick, teachers who could empower the next generation, all left. The leaving made many of the villagers beggars in poorer lands, and while there, they mourned about their wretched village and hid their faces in shame when its name was said. Shame.

The village then started to die, a painful and slow death. Don’t come here, don’t help us, we don’t know how to choose, was the voice that kept carrying the most noise. So it kept on dying.

While down the rivers, which rivers flew westwards, those visitors waited like vultures to pounce on the carcass once all the villagers were gone or had forgot what they owned. Waiting.

Tinomudaishe Chinyoka is a Harare based lawyer and member of the ruling Zanu PF party