Panashe Chigumadzi The God of the First Testament
Praying for a good harvest in the barren maize field | Photo (detail): epa afp Joe © dpa photo report
By Panashe ChigumadziPlay the short story as audio: read by Sabrina Khalil
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I wake up with a start. 2 a.m. I feel heavy. A deep aching. Deep in my bones. Like they are being pulled down into the earth. The dreams have come back again. Strange dreams of nothingness. I wake up exhausted from them. Waking up is sort of like coming back from an emptiness so deep, my body just hurts from the act. When I am awake, I want to cry and I want to scream all the time. Something, anything to give what is in my bones a release. But I can’t. Whatever it is, is trapped inside. It’s been like this since Mbuya has been sick. Only Mbuya knew what to do with my dreams. When I slept next to her they stopped. Now she is far. I am here. I stare at the ceiling too afraid to fall asleep until it captures me again.
I wake up suddenly again. 6 a.m. A text from Mama. Mbuya passed on in the early hours. I manage to still my trembling hands just enuf to pick up the phone again and call Mama. It takes time for the words to come out, eventually they do. I tell her I want to come for the burial. “No, Tambi, Mbuya would not have wanted you to miss your exams”, she replies. Something tells me to go down to Baba Chigumira at the security desk. As I walk down I’m hoping he’s still on duty. He is. I want to cry. He is the only one from home. The only one who will understand. “Mwan’angu,” he greets me and I stare at Baba Chigumira as if I’d only just remembered his presence. I open my mouth to talk but there is no sound. He gets up from the security desk, “Ko, zvaita sei?” I am suddenly ashamed to tell him but I do anyway. He nods and takes my hands into his. “Nematambudziko, I was not able to bury my mother either.” I want to cry but I cannot. Baba Chigumira takes out a pocket bible. He takes my left hand and begins, “Baba wedu wekudenga...”
I stare at Baba, until he gently reminds me of the time and I have to make my way to the exam room. I walk into the exam room. The final paper is in front of me. I feel my body heavy and difficult under me, my head whirling with words spoken by unknown tongues until a blankness settles on my mind and I can’t remember a thing that has gone before.
The white blank torments me. I can’t remember my name, I can’t remember myself. I look at the first question and the whirling of words comes back as sound in my ear. I have to still the world around me, still myself, make myself steady, so I can listen to whatever it is that is trapped in my bones. I go back to fill in my name. Today it is not Esther Mangwende, the name of the Rhodes scholar registered, I write down Tambisa Mangwende. The name I inherited from Mbuya. Today, they will know me by her name.
How I finish the paper I don’t know. But I do. I go back to my room at Linacre. In the past I would have prayed. I look for my snuff bottle. Careful not to take too much, I pinch some of the powder and hold it up to my nose. I’m temporarily relieved by the minty nicotine release. In the past I would have prayed. Much to the would-be horror of my Ruwadzano attending mother, I’ve long since stopped believing. If I had guts, I would tell her that if her god did exist, I would not recognise him because he’s a shitty god to black people. Of course, Mama prayed harder when I told her of my dreams. In the past I would have prayed. Of course, I wouldn’t tell her. It’d be worse than becoming a drug addict or murderer or sex worker (or prostitute, in her words), Muslim (or, for that matter, anyone else who doesn’t believe in jesu kriste), or living a life biblically condemned as sinful. In effect, I’d be telling her that I had no chance at redemption, having already condemned myself to hell. I’d be telling her that I’m spiritually dead. She would respond, “Do you want us point at you and say, uyu munhu akafa achifamba?” If I felt cheeky I might say, this isn’t entirely far from the truth, but that’s beside the point. In the past I would have prayed.
The snuff doesn’t calm me like it usually does, so I find the last bunch of imphepho, place it in a tin basin, light it and take it with me to my bathroom along with a case of Black Label that Zanele bought at the South African shop in London. In the past I would have prayed. I keep the lights off and open my window, taking a cursory glance at the Linacre College gardens I’d boasted about in the too many interviews on my experience as a Rhodes Scholar. In the past I would have prayed. I throw cold water on my face. I watch in the mirror as the water drifts down my cheeks and along my jawline. I feel drained and tired, so the tub’s taps feel more stubborn than usual. After the short struggle, my lips form an O around the Black Label’s nape as I inhale the imphepho fumes, like they will give me the answer my body seems to be looking for. In the past I would have prayed. Without letting go of the beer in my hand, I clumsily remove my clothes and get into the tub. I turn the tap to its fullest pressure.
My bones heavy, I sink into the water. I think of how much the world has demanded much of who I am not. And so, who was I not to create many selves to satisfy it? I think of the the many deaths I have died so I can live in this place. At the thought of each of these small deaths, I take another sip. Sometimes I think my ritual of libations is dishonest, because they aren’t poured into the ground. Instead, my libations find their way into my throat. When I think this, I convince myself that those selves have yet to find their final resting place in the ground. For now, they have been buried deep within me, so it would be a mistake to spill libations on the ground. Rather, I should pour the libations deep down my throat so that my past selves buried deep within me might be honoured one final time. In the past I would have prayed.
Other times my small deaths occasion elegies that I write in blind fury, a dirge across the page, so as not to notice the passing of another self. I write it down so that I won’t forget the pain. I want to know it, to remember the pain at its keenest, its realest. It gives me an urgency, a clarity of purpose I don’t get elsewhere. I don’t want to lose that. In the past I would have prayed. I form another O and take the last gulp of my beer before reaching for another. The alcohol is beginning to warm my body, and I feel my head begin to numb and daze. In the past I would have prayed.
I first gave up going to church when they told me that acknowledging the presence of my ancestors was akin to practicing witchcraft. It’s okay if you think belief in ancestors is superstitious. Even if you don’t believe in them, they believe in you. Your belief in them doesn’t stop their belief in you. That’s what Mbuya often said to me. That’s what I learnt from her, my newly gained ancestor. In the past I would have prayed. Last term I told my professor: One difference between black and white people is that white people believe in institutional care and black people believe in intergenerational care. The hands of the youth look after the ailments of the elderly. The wisdom of the elderly tempers the impulses of the youthful. When our grandparents are old, they don’t go to the old age homes, they go to their children’s homes. When children are troublesome, they don’t go to the psychiatrist or psychologist, they go to Mbuya’s home. I was the troublesome child, although, my parents did not know my trouble. I made sure of it. I found my own care. I took myself there: to her home, to her memory. She was the only one who knew what to do with my dreams. In the past I would have prayed.
I drank because I felt it offered me a communion with Mbuya. In Mbuya’s house jesus was still god, but Mbuya loved a good ngud’ like anyone else. She didn’t smoke. She said that was what white women did and she was not a white woman. She did snuff instead. The beer and snuff brought her closer to her ancestors, she said. It was a habit she’d picked up when she was a good-time girl in town. They were always being accused of wanting to be white women with their powders, rouge and their hot-combed hair and wigs. Yes, my god-fearing grandmother loved a good ngud’ like anyone else. Her little rebellion. That’s why I love a good ngud’. We drank together. Me and Mbuya. Two of a kind.
Tambisa. One who softens. The one who offered me a tenderness, a vulnerability, so fierce, I could not hide myself from it. Her light was an honesty so radical, I could not hide from it, her, or, least of all, myself. It would always find me and make demands of me so total, it took everything from me. In return for my bareness it gave me back a love I wished to be worthy of, a pain you wished to be steady enuf to bear, a truth I wished I could be forthright enuf to witness as she bared all to me and let me not look away. In her light I was always better, I was always myself because that’s all she allowed me to be. For all my appreciation of her, I did not know my weight until she left me to carry it on my own. The heaviness in my bones. In the past I would have prayed.
I am halfway down my fifth bottle as I sink lower into the water. It’s a heady mix: the alcohol, the fumes, the water’s heat. I pick up the razor that I keep on the tub’s edge. I drop the bottle as I looked at the razor. In the past I would have prayed. I can’t keep myself up anymore, I lose entire possession of my body. Surrounded by the familiar inky black, the colour that absorbs the colours of my griefs, sorrows, angers and rages, I submit myself to the water. Like a baby turning for the first time in its water, I lie in foetal position, drowning in my skin. Just then, Mbuya cries for me, she sings for me as she always did when I came to her with my dreams, and sensed my wariness of the world:
“Mwanangu, if you kill yourself with work, stress, ideas, revolution, and so on, and so forth, not even twenty five years out of your mother’s womb, the world will just wink or 'aga shem' you for a minute and move on…. and I would have lost yet another child.”
And my spirit answers like it always did: “We’re all shit scared that we’re gonna die so we create a god. But my god, when I do believe in her, is my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, my cousins, my sisters, all beautiful bitter black spirits of light darkness evil good. Witch angel. That's who she is to me. I don't always believe her. When I do, she makes my heart rise and sink, kills me and renews me at the same time. That's who my god is. The totality of our handsome ugly loving hateful vindictive caring, who make up the soul of god. That’s who she is to me.”
My parents had built Mbuya a home kumusha, long before she retired. Mbuya only stopped flinging other people’s dishcloths, raising other people’s children, dodging other people’s husbands after she had a stroke. Even after she retired she refused to live with us in town. Even after Sekuru died she preferred to live alone, she insisted, because she didn’t want to inflict her eccentricities on anyone else, nor did she want anyone else to inflict theirs on her. “If I didn’t want to live alone, I wouldn’t live alone”, she would say. No more bosky at the back of Mrs’s home for her. She liked to be alone but she did allow me in. In Mbuya’s house, there was not much talking between the two of us. I didn’t have enough Shona for that. There was much silence between us. In the silence we got to just be. In time, from the silence flowed the singing, the dancing, the laughing, the crying, the shouting. From the singingdancinglaughingcryingshouting I learnt this about her:
My grandmother anointed herself with holy water when the springs of her creativity were forced dry. My grandmother, the Daughter of Ham, with not so much of a moment to fold her arms, sit down, daydream, unravel her dreams thoughts, never a moment undisturbed, free from interruption from Mrs’s work or the noisy inquiries of Mrs’s children. She, let alone her time, no longer belonged to herself, so that when she was given time off she knew only to devote it all to Him, Baba wedu wekudenga. It’s all she could do to keep her body intact, barely held together in her Ruwadzano uniform coloured red by her heart’s bleeding in quiet suicide. Better to kill it yourself first before it’s crushed under the weight of spiritual waste, the depravity of performing motherhood, so that Mrs can perform Ladyhood, of performing selfless abstraction, so that others might self-actualize. And in that vacant space where her soul once lived, she resurrected God, Baba wedu wekudenga. The pain threatended her existence, and so it had to be be supplanted by prayer. When her soul first left her, she did not eat or sleep for three days and then she prayed, she was not sure to what or who, perhaps to God, Baba wedu wekudenga, or to the Great Void. Deutronomy says we are all cursed, says Mfundisi. As they mumbled their agreement that they were doubly cursed, she and her fellow congregants could not successfully picture a god who was not white. They believed in the curse of Ham. And yet their lives testified to a comprehension that their god must have a colour.
For years black people like my grandmother lived in the homes of racists. They survived, knowing that their presence, so long as Mrs felt she could control it, was sought after. My grandmother always said she preferred Boss. He owned up to his evil - claimed it, caressed it, loved it, even boasted about it. In that way he was a known quantity, an evil that could be tolerated, survived, maybe even outwitted, whereas Mrs obscured her evil, making believe that she was on your side, the Daughter of Ham the innocent, generationally cursed. She secretly envied you, your hips, your lips, your skin. When she forgot herself she would stare, sometimes touch, she wanted you to be her friend, mother, sister. When she forgot herself she would open up to you, often cry. She wished the children loved her as they do you, and yet wanted none of the responsibility that came with that love. She craved Baas’ position, his power, and yet wanted none of the responsibility that came with that power. She would open up, hoping that you would too, was surprised, hurt even that you would not, because you knew she wanted none of the responsibility that came with the knowledge of your world. Secretly she did too, and so fearing the weight of your tears, she weaponized her tears against you, the Daughter of Ham whom she loved so much.
With enuf time, despite the evasions, my grandmother learnt the exact nature of their mountain of evil, she grew to learn the precise measurements and shape of it, so that her eyes could size it into a stone. Uncomfortable though it was, it was just another inconvenience that she would have to pack into the pocket of her apron before she finally tied her dhukhu in the broken mirror of her bosky room and set off for a full day of work in Mrs’s house. To talk of the stone in her apron, she would tell you, is useless. To expect any other behaviour from the stone was futile, because it was understood that it was, after all, not a person. That is why, she would remind me, in our language, when you refer to “vanhu” you mean to say “people”, which means “black people”, which means people who have hunhu, which means people who behave as people should, as people do. And so, when a stone has acted as a person should, as a person does, we are surprised and we remark, “Ah, Jill munhu”, because personhood is not in the nature of stones.
It is because of my grandmother that I waiver in my convictions about god. I was not naive enuf to believe in maternal instincts alone as a means of survival. I was grounded enuf to see her beyond selfless abstraction. I spent enuf time with her to see that there was more. The more that was hinted at in her curse-prayer:
“Baba wedu wekudenga, I come to you, as your child, Daughter of Ham.
Baba wedu wekudenga, cursed as I am, I have sought to do all that is good and turn away from evil, forgive me my failings.
Baba wedu wekudenga, my good has been turned evil by enemies who have tried me and lied against me.
Baba wedu wekudenga, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ cursed for me to bring the fullness of his cross, death, blood, sacrifice, and his resurrection against all those who have witchcraft, and curses against me.
Baba wedu wekudenga, I pray that their fathers and mothers from their furthest generation will not intercede for them before the great throne, and that the women’s wombs shall not bear fruit except for strangers.
Baba wedu wekudenga, I pray that their worldly goods shall not prosper, and that their crops shall not multiply and that their cows, their chickens and all their animals die of starvation and thirst.
Baba wedu wekudenga, I pray that their houses shall be unroofed and that the rain, the thunder and lightning shall find the innermost recesses of their home and that the foundation shall crumble and the floods tear them down.
Baba wedu wekudenga, I pray that the sun shall not shed its rays on them in benevolence, but instead it shall beat down on them and burn them and destroy them.
Baba wedu wekudenga, I ask you for all these things because they have dragged me in the dust and destroyed my good name, broken my heart and caused me to curse the day that I was born.
Baba wedu wekudenga, all of this I pray in the mighty name of the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who came in the flesh.”
For years I prayed and prayed, and yet my spirit would not transcend the limits of my skin. I found that in my grandmother was contained the best and worst and everything in between, of black womanhood, of humanity. The humanity of her womankind was one I thought worthy of embracing as a god.
Like a baby in it’s mother’s womb I turn in the water. I feel weightless, floating in my skin, as though the water is dissolving my heavy bones, and the inky black of my griefs, sorrows, angers and rages flows into the water. Just then, Mbuya cries for me, she sings for me and I come to her in my dreams, and she senses my wariness of the world:
“Mwanangu, if you kill yourself with work, stress, ideas, revolution, and so on, and so forth, not even twenty five years out of your mother’s womb, the world will just wink or 'aga shem' you for a minute and move on…. and I would have lost yet another child.” And my spirit answers like it always did:
“We’re all shit scared that we’re gonna die so we create a god. But my god, when I do believe in her, is my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, my cousins, my sisters, all beautiful bitter black spirits of light darkness evil good. Witch angel. That's who she is to me. I don't always believe her. When I do, she makes my heart rise and sink, kills me and renews me at the same time. That's who my god is. The totality of our handsome ugly loving hateful vindictive caring, who make up the soul of god. That’s who she is to me.”