Growing up in Zimbabwe is probably the best kind of growing up anyone can ever have . I have so many beautiful and fond memories. I was born and raised in Njube, one of the oldest townships in Zimbabwe’s second capital city Bulawayo – the City of Kings fondly known as ‘’Skies’. Bulawayo got its name from Lobengula, the son of King Mzilikazi who fled the mfecane at the time of Shaka Zulu and settled in Matabeleland. The name refers the dispute about who would be king after King Mzilikazi. It is also the heartland of the Ndebele people and was Zimbabwe’s industrial hub.
When I think of my childhood I think of playing all sorts of games: games clapping hands (amhina), games chasing and running after each other (nqobe/chitsvare), games with a ball (mamtshayana), games sitting down with tiny stones arranged in rows (tsoro), games singing and dancing, games with a flat piece of stone that we would throw on a drawn out ground on the floor and jump over (pada) and games with skipping ropes. ‘Epic‘ and ‘Freedom’ are the best ways to describe my childhood. It was never restricted, monitored or guided. Neither was it influenced by technology. It was a child given the territory and platform to just be a child. Playing on rocks, in the open fields, falling, hurting and bruising knees. The boys would make cars using wire. Sometimes they would even sell the cars. They made fighting ninjas using copper wires from the inside of the electrical cables. The girls would make dolls using bits and pieces of cloth, and make clothes for our babies. We would dress up and play house.
Right at the front of my house was a youth centre, which housed several theatre groups. I once joined a group, which was called Young Warriors. It was a local theatre group comprising of young lads and girls which did traditional and modern dance shows. It also did dramas and short plays that explored sensitive topics like the HIV /AIDS pandemic, child abuse and the disadvantages of being a young girl in Zimbabwe. This last point refers to some religious groups where girls as young as thirteen are married off, and the message basically was: let kids be kids before they can have kids . Dance and theatre groups like UMKHATHI Theatre Productions are still active in Njube – their plays are educational and the work beautiful. Zimbabwe’s dance groups are a living testimony to the country’s rich cultural heritage – and include the traditional dance styles of isitshikitsha, umtshongoyi, and gumboot dancing.
I remember setting out with my friends and brothers into the veld through knee-high green grass on a grasshopper hunt. Eating edible insects is common practice in Zimbabwe and other areas of southern Africa. We looked for different kinds of grasshoppers: green (mafutha) and brown (bomba). Oh the satisfaction it always gave me to go back home with a packet of grasshoppers to salt and fry. Each type has a different, unique taste with the green ones being fatty and juicy and the brown ones being dry and crisp. For me the pleasure and satisfaction was in the hunting for them and in being able to find my own food.
The rainy season always brought different kinds of edible insects. My favourite is the flying ant locally known as ‘ ihlabusi/ tsambarafuta ‘. This is an ant that burrows into the earth after it has landed on the ground. You can identify it by its huge, fatty abdomen. My other favorite one is another species of flying ant known locally as ‘ ishwa / inhlwa ‘. This insect is attracted to the light. At night next to the street tower lights, almost every child living on the same street would be swarming around the light trying to gather as many of the nutritious ants as possible – running around, shirts flying in the air, trying every tactic to catch these ‘ishwa’. After catching them we would put them in jars of wáter to drown them. You can also fry them in a pan or put them in the scrotching Zimbabwean summer sun the following day to dry. During this time various kinds of vegetables grow wildly in open fields – vegetables like the Spider Web Flower (ulude/rune). Okra (derere) starts to grow during this season too. I think these are uniquely Zimbabwean fruit and vegetables. During springtime in Zimbabwe it was always such pleasure to see the purple flower ‘carpet’ on the roads and paths from the jacaranda trees, which line most of the streets in Zimbabwe.
I also have good memories of eating fruits grown in our own gardens – and the gardens of people we knew. Guavas, mangos, bananas, lemons, paw paws, peaches, oranges and mulberries – it was not uncommon to find all these different trees in one person’s yard. There are also fruits from the baobab, umviyo (wild medlar), tsubvu (smelly-berry fingerleaf), umkhemeswane (monkey orange), uxakuxaku (snot apple), masawu (jujube), nhengeni (sour plum) that you find growing wild in the not-so-dense bush. The best part was getting these for free, as fresh and organic as could be.
Then there was schooling in Zimbabwe. With highest literacy rate in Africa and one of the best schooling systems on the continent, both academics and sports were an important part of every school be they government or private. All sorts of activities were offered, from choir, English and drama, public speaking clubs, conservation clubs, chess clubs and various sports clubs catering for soccer, volley ball, netball, basketball, tennis ball and athletics. The range of things offered allow every child to find what interested them most. I still enjoy singing and writing.
The most memorable thing about school were the school trips. We once went to the `Valley Fun Farm’ – an ostrich breeding farm – as well as Bulawayo’s Natural History Museum. I found the museum really informative with its descriptive displays of evolution, Zimbabwean history, mineralogy and the natural environment. We also went to Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage – a refuge for wounded and abandoned animal needing special care. The entrance fee went towards buying food for the animals.
During the school holidays we would visit my grandmother in our rural home of Mutare – a ten hour drive from Bulawayo. We would set off on the journey as early as five in the morning and would take the Zvishavane – Masvingo road. The drive to the mountainous city of Mutare was exciting and ‘freaky’ as my dad would tell us stories about the sacred mountains along the way. For example, how you were never supposed to say anything bad about the mountains least you anger the gods, and face their wrath by getting lost or worse. Daddy also told us about all the sacred forests in his village: forests in which the spirits of those forests take care of wanderers by giving fruit and water to those who are lost and hungry.
On the way to Mutare we passed the Birchenough Bridge. Apparently this is was the third largest bridge in the world at the time of its construction. It’s enormous and beautiful. Just after crossing the bridge there were always hawkers that sold different kind of fruits and kinds of fried bird species. They also sold different kinds of edible insects – my favourite being makurwe / gurwe in local Shona language. This insect is slightly bigger than the above mentioned ones and is a type of cricket. You find them mostly in the fields where groundnuts are planted because they eat the groundnut plants and then burrow into the sand. They make two hole – one with their food store and another where they live. To catch them you need a hoe to dig, and then you use your finger to find out where exactly they are.
After buying and eating this Zimbabwean delicacy we would continue on our way past the Christmas Pass to Mutare. This was always a very steep and very scary due to it being so high up with so many sharp curves. Eventually we would get to my grandmother’s place. It is tradition in Zimbabwe that you kill and prepare a big rooster for visitors. This is done to show that you are happy to receive them. My grandmother used to make the chicken with a variety of vegetables – my favourite being pumpkin leaves. These are easy and quick to prepare. You just need a bit of bicarbonate soda and a bit of oil and water.
After supper we would sit around the fire under the moonlight and listen to stories such as folktales about the cunning rabbit and many other animals; also stories about the liberation struggle. Stories to educate and entertain. Old people have a way of telling stories: some are told beautifully through song, lowering their voices and raising them again for emphasis; pausing for a while and keeping you in suspense. Then there are the stories about ghost’s which always left you wishing you hadn’t listened since we used to sleep in a hut without electric light.
In the morning my grandmother would send us to the garden – a huge garden to watch and keep the goats and cows out. We would take plenty of cooking stuff, and this was so exciting to play house with real food, and make a real fire to cook. Back at home in the city of Bulwayo there was no such luxury – food was not for playing. We would play with mud, pretending it was food. At my grandmothers house however food was grown, eggs were laid by chickens, water was from the borehole and the you found your own firewood.
We would also sometimes swim in the nearby pond or in the river. Total bliss. Swimming in the pond was totally at one’s own risk since there are small turtles likely to bite you. But we swam nonetheless. My brothers would sometimes go out to herd the cattle during the day, while I as the girl child remained to help with the house chores. I would watch and help my grandmother make peanut butter from roasted peanuts using two very smooth grinding stones.
I feel that having had such a balanced, healthy childhood is vital to creating balanced healthy adults, and has taught me to appreciate life more fully. I am really thankful for my experiences of growing up in Zimbabwe during the 90’s and 2000’s. Even now when I go back to visit I am aware of that much of these things that I loved during my youth still remain important in the life of the children there, despite much having changed too.