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Tawanda Chabikwa '07 - Senior Project
Tawanda Chabikwa's senior project consisted of a full-length dance concert, an exhibit of paintings - and a full novel. The images on this page consist of Tawanda's artwork, along with images from his dance concert, Gesture. The performance and sales of his artwork served as a fundraiser for the Zimbabwean nonprofit, Ndini Wako, www.ndiniwako.org, which Tawanda established in 2005. Through it, Tawanda provides tuition to AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe, who would otherwise not have the funds to attend school. Tawanda is currently studying for an MFA in dance.
Baobabs in Heaven
This excerpt occurs midway through the novel. The narrator, raised rurally, now lives in the city, though his old friend Jeremiah still lives in the countryside. On a visit to Jeremiah, just before this chapter begins, the two young men had confronted a local gang. These are the "events" that are referred to in this chapter, which begins with the funeral of the man known as "Serio's brother." Throughout the novel, as in this chapter, the action is broken up by the stories of Ambuya, the Grandmother.
There is no magic where I come from. No laughter. I do not come across bubbles of happy energy while roaming in the woods. No. There is no magic. Only fading hopes scribbled on the toilet paper of yesterday. I do not find magical mentors of spiritual apexes nor friends to hold my hand. I let go and fall forever. My beauty is not coupled with supernatural acuteness and sensual awareness. My thoughts are damp and moist like dirty, old cloth in dark corners of the basement. We are escorting the unnecessarily expensive coffin to its last stop. The slow motion, weeping swarm follows the coffin. Dust is raised in the arid scape as the weepers traverse the few hundred feet to the other end of Serio's compound where others of his family are buried. The ground is naked and dry like the voices of the people surrounding and supporting the coffin. The cool surfaces of tattered, tired drums are being beaten in the bored gaze of the morning light. I am glad we are almost done here. I follow at a distance.
We awoke at the crack of dawn from a wakeful sleep colored by the pigments of grief. Scalding thick tea was served with large slices of thick dry bread. I burnt my tongue on the metal cup but was glad to be receiving the tea. It reminded me of how much I missed tea. I made a mental note to drink more tea when I got back to the city. Later there were speeches given by the family and friends. They were tearful and bland lies told to give an image of what a brilliant person the faithful departed was. But I sat and listened. It appears Serio's brother had been the peacekeeper in the family, the cool headed one. The buffer. The most memorable speech was by the youngest brother of the family. He had sorrowfully described how this dead man was not just another tale of a hunter who had gone out and returned home with nothing on his back. That this was in fact the only person in the family worth a gasp. The man had broken down and cried as he talked of how close he was to his brother. To people's surprise and shame, he began to yell about hypocrites among the mourners who came to sate their own griefs and also the hunger for gossip about the cause of the death. We all knew what he was talking about. He was then dragged from our knowing guilt by those who felt he had said enough. People had shaken their heads and sighed saying that grief does this to people. I knew he had cast light on the darker recesses of the gathering's thoughts. The unspoken truth of the disease that had claimed the dead man remained a shadow lurking beneath our feet. One that only becomes evident when we stoop so low as to gossip, or when the sun of our conscience is setting and the shadow grows taller.
Now the ground beneath our feet on the way to the grave is carrying our many stout shadows. The soil is in large, hard clumps apart from a path made for single-file human traffic. To walk we have to raise our knees quite high to avoid stubbing a toe or falling over. Halfway to the grave we stop for a moment of silence and respect. A sweaty reverend drops an inaudible, feeble prayer. I think to myself that if that prayer is a reference letter to get into Heaven, then Serio's brother had better get ready for warmer climates. People's heads are bowed and there is the occasional "amen" sighed as positive reinforcement for the impotent prayer. My mind takes a stride in its own direction: Heaven is within you and all around you. These were the words from the gospel of Timothy, the one that the folks in the Vatican would pummel you with a chalice for reading. I look around myself to see if this is true. The Heaven all around me-the Village-is sad. Their faith is parched and hope is blurred from decades of listening to the same senile preacher and sleeping with the same whore in tedious alternation. The Heaven within me is a story of my childhood, far away and colorful. There is no magic here, or maybe it is just now, or times like now, when the world is as bland as the bread I was fed for breakfast.
Tonight Ambuya is tired. She had spent the whole day asleep. Her body is not well, but her storytelling is as strong as a baobab tree. She sighs and coughs a little. Tonight there are only three of us seated around the fire: Grandfather, myself and her. This is unusual. A neighbor had passed away two days ago and was buried yesterday. So the other children are not here as they were probably not allowed to come over. My cousins are asleep. But I stayed with Grandmother.
Grandfather is also here because the neighbor was a good friend of his. I do not know how he died. But Sekuru is drinking beer out of a gourd and smoking.
"The story shall continue," says Grandmother in a low tone, "life does not wait, our hearts beat till they are tired." She glances at my grandfather who is looking into the fire quietly.
He is far away. Smoke from the cigarette is swirling about his face. The hood of smoke makes him look tired and old. Ambuya pokes the embers with a stick and tosses a log into them. In a few seconds the sparks turn into flames and the three of us disappear into the past: Ambuya with her fatigue, Sekuru with his defeat and I with my imagination tree.
"The Basket Weaver walked behind the large man in silence for many days. They would stop twice a day to eat. They never spoke to each other. And their eyes did not meet. They had only looked at each other once when the Basket Weaver had freed the Zindoga. The loner's expressionless face had extended its understanding from behind dark eyes and he turned to the dark forest. Basket Weaver followed." She coughed a little and shifted her weight.
"The oracle had occasionally appeared before them in the forest. They followed her form silently. They were two men walking different journeys on the same path. Life is sometimes like that. Sometimes two different journeys can be on the same path."
I hear a sniffle and I turn to look at Grandfather. He is rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. In his left hand the dejected cigarette glows from behind a long protrusion of ash. He looks like he is shivering.
"Yes, and sometimes different paths lead to the same place," I wonder if she has noticed. "But these men were taking the same path to different places. The Basket Weaver watched in awe as the giant pushed trees over to make bridges over rivers and as he hunted animals with his bare hands. And the Zindoga observed quietly as the Weaver made reed pouches to carry water, and wove rope baskets to carry food. Night and day were the same in the forest, so they slept whenever they were tired. One day they came across great danger."
I can tell that even Grandfather is listening. I lean forward tentatively.
"Before them stood a large baboon. Dirty, dank clots of fur lined its pink skin. Its large nostrils flared; its bark echoed through the woods. It was almost as large as the Basket Weaver! The monster had large teeth the size of an axe blade and its eyes were so deep in the skull they could be mistaken for Never. The Weaver had heard talk of such a creature, terrible things had been said of it." Her voice sounds distant as she continues.
"Now what could they do? Two men on the same path to different places had encountered Fear. Large teeth, filthy drool, ill-odored intent and an obscure fate. But the baboon turned away and strutted into the forest displaying its calloused red buttocks. Perhaps they would meet again. As soon as it was gone, the two turned and saw the Oracle further up the path. They continued to walk."
Grandfather rises with a sigh, I hear his knees crack.
"Tomorrow has come," he mumbles gently as he leaves.
"It is tomorrow, Sekuru," I watch him and wonder if he will sleep.
After the burial, the crowd sits to eat lunch before leaving. The bull that had been slaughtered is finally to feed the masses. As Jeremiah and I sit with the men eating meager shares of meat and morsels of sadza, heads turn at the sound of shouting. We all rise and see four men emerge from behind a hut arguing angrily.
Three of them surrounding one and yelling about disrespect of the dead. The fellow being chastised is lacking in remorse. He is large and proud. Something about his character is dangerously familiar. I see that he is talking about coming to pay his respects to the living as well. Serio goes to see what the problem is. As they speak, I catch Jeremiah glancing at me momentarily. It is sooner than we hoped. We go and flank Serio.
"We don't want any trouble," he is saying.
"Trouble started a long time ago, but we are just here to pay our respects like I said."
As the man says this, I see that he is not alone. Almost out of nowhere I see a group of at least twenty men and boys of similar character. They are bearing no weapons but they are clearly looking for trouble. They are talking aloud and in vulgar tones, but not at anyone. I know they are just here to pick a fight. And that they have been sent. I can feel a few people looking at Jeremiah and me. More men from the funeral are moving closer to us, but they still seem a little confused.
"I think you should leave," Serio says feebly.
"But we have not seen the grave," says the leader in an obnoxious tone.
His crew is now standing behind him. This is a stand-off. Two groups of people facing each other. The group I am in is clearly less accustomed to this exhibit of neo-primitivism. Besides, we are still in the funeral mode.
"We must see the grave," says the leader of the group.
"To piss on it," mutters one of his cronies. Bad move.
"What!?" This is Serio's little brother, the one who had given the passionate speech earlier.
He is already advancing towards the chap that had blasphemed. I can see that this situation could explode easily as everyone is now advancing. Voices are being raised by both sides. The comment had transformed my group from passive to primitively militant. Jeremiah is still standing next to Serio. I jump forward and catch his little brother before he gets to the leader of the mercenaries. I almost laugh at how unfair a fight it would have been. Serio's brother is small and thin. His flesh has been eaten away by excessive affinity for marijuana and alcohol. He is yelling obscenities interjected with the demand that I release him. So I am sandwiched between him and the large leader guy. I can smell alcohol on the breath of the flailing sibling. Other men step in and pull him away to the back of the crowd. I can see that at the back of the funeral crowd, axes and hoes had miraculously materialized and were raised high. I turn to the boss guy.
"This is a funeral, you may pay your respects some other time." I feel Jeremiah at my side. Serio is on the other side.
"And if we don't?" Another bad move.
In a flash, there is the unmistakable sound of a gruesomely loud clap. The large man is staggering and Jeremiah is pulling back his open palm. I jump in between two large men this time and on either side of them men are pushing each other and pulling at each others' collars. The large man whistles sharply. The signal is understood and people release each other.
Some are still cussing and spitting. The two large men I am standing between are staring over my head at each other. The invader leader is heaving, and his face has the neat dent of Jeremiah's palm. I can see it throbbing. A little saliva is on the cheek opposite that of the assault. I can smell cheap cologne on him. Jeremiah stares at him steadily, with the dark look that makes my adrenaline run.
"This is not over," he says to Jeremiah.
"Have a safe journey," I say.
"You city guys think you're funny," he turns and leaves.
His army follows, leaving behind a trail of threats and evil promises. I am pleased to not find the smell of fear when I turn my nose back to the crowd of men that had stood behind us. One thing that never fails to erase fear is disrespect. I guess I have Serio's little insane brother to thank for taking a stand. Jeremiah is given many pats on the back. He does not respond. The events of the day before begin to be openly discussed. People now ask us to confirm the rumors. We simply say that they had disrespected us. The dead man is forgotten. Younger, spunky men are psyched and hoping for a fight.
Middle-aged men are annoyed by the disrespect exhibited by the intruders, and want to set it straight. The older men sniff their tobacco, groaning about how the times have changed. And the chief, who had watched from a distance, remains quiet. The white stubble on his head and chin looks terribly frail on his shiny skin. His cane leans against his knee as he sits. Everyone has forgotten him in the excitement. I watch him closely, to see what remains unsaid. I watch him dread the future.