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Songs to an African Sunset: The Self is Rooted in the Land

Songs to an African Sunset is a sweeping collection of tales from author Sekai Nzenza-Shand about her homeland of Zimbabwe. Told in twelve chapters about love, family, tradition and renewal Sekai draws readers into a place so different from the West you will feel like you just jumped a plane to Harare.

After moving abroad, first to London and then to Australia, where she married and had children with an Aussie, Sekai is called back to her village, her mother and her roots after her brother’s death.

Deciding to relocate, at least for a time, with her husband and children she gathers her memories around her and heads back to Zimbabwe. What she encounters in the land of her childhood is the extreme heat, poverty and gross injustice tempered with rich culture and deep family roots, an independent country struggling to find its place.

With one foot in and one foot out Sekai explores that which she had thought was familiar from the local blend of Catholicism and ancestor worship to polygamy, from the language of the Shona people to witchcraft, all the while daring the reader to look beyond their own assumptions about Africa and Zimbabwe.

With moving lyrical prose and a clear voice Sekai Nzenza-Shand shows us a place often overlooked by the world, a land at once as exotic in its customs as it is familiar in its emotions. By the end the reader, and Sekai, will be wondering what it means to have roots in a land and if its possible to become a foreigner at home.

Excerpt from Chapter 2: Following the Tracks Back

The road home was as difficult as I remembered it, a rough three-hour drive over the corrugations, not helped by the fact that we were traveling in one of Charles’s huge old BMW’s which could not have been less well adapted to this journey.

Adam was used to driving on rough roads back home in Australia, but I could tell from his expression that he had never seen anything like this before. The road was really only intended for the village buses that plied the route twice a day. It began as a neat, two-lane strip of tar, but that was short-lived; a single-lane tarred stretch continued uncertainly for a while, until abruptly the dusty road took over.

You could always tell when you had left the commercial farms owned by the whites because the tarred road and electricity poles would end. After that, you were in the Tribal Trust Lands, now known by the more politically correct title of Communal Lands. The change of name had meant little to the people: it had really just been a case of changing masters.

The BMW did not like the dirt road and nor did my husband. He did not see the magnificent blue of the Wedza mountains, the picture-postcard villages, and the little children running out to greet the car. He only saw the potholes, the jagged rocks and the deep culverts where the rains had turned road into river bed. This was not the honeymoon he in mind.

Travelling at thirty kilometers an hour produced vibrations that drowned out the stereo and when, after half and hour, the dashboard fell away in our laps, we had to forget about music altogether. We stopped frequently to clear away rocks or to survey the road ahead, which at ever turn potentially concealed axle-snapping obstacles.

Still, we were getting closer to home all the time. Soon we were in sight of the mountain, Dengedza that overlooked my village; familiar faces appeared on the roadside. The road had become smooth and my husband was clearly enjoying himself now – he was even smiling and commenting on the scenery. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about our driveway.

On reflection, it was less a driveway than the result of a rockslide. Not that we stopped to reflect too much when the rock struck the bottom on the car; a big rock all right, but hardly big enough to stand out against the undress of others that were scattered across the final 200- meter stretch of the homestead.

Our homecoming was rapturous. I hadn’t been back for a while, and my mother ran out from the kitchen to greet us, ululating and dancing, raising dust as she came. My brother Sydney and his wife Mai Shuvai, and their children heard the commotion and came running up from their huts to see what it was all about.

Bathed in the purple light of late afternoon, it was a perfect scene and I felt a peace and happiness that only being home can bring. Then somebody saw the oil pouring into the red dust underneath our car.

“Maiweeeeee!” (My mother!) screeched Mai Shuvai irrelevantly as she tried to stem the flow of hot oil from the sump with cotton wool. The cotton wool was replaced by a tin mug, which quickly overflowed and was replaced with a pot, and then a still bigger one. Soon just about every kitchen utensil was filled with the steaming oil.

To me, this scene had a familiarity about it that if anything made me feel more at home. Life in the village was an ongoing cycle of crisis and resolution. Nothing, except sickness and death, could disturb the overall pattern. As time was rarely an issue, wasting it meant virtually nothing at all; therefore, there was no urgency to find a solution to our problem. This was the art of life in the village.

But for my husband, being 150 kilometers from civilization with a broken car, no tools and no hope of a passing BMW mechanic was nothing short of a major crisis, an absolute show-stopper. After he finished yelling and kicking the dust, he just sat down and stared into the distance, trying to resign himself to the prospect of an indefinite stay in the village. Here was a person who had never experienced the feeling of being abandoned by twentieth-century technology.

The people in the village did not understand what all the fuss was about. Tomorrow at four in the morning, the bus back to Harare would come by the village, waking everybody with its three-note horn blaring out ‘Strangers in the Night’. If the car could not be fixed, the white man could simply get on the bus for the six-hour journey back to town.

Uncle Chakwanda, who had arrived from the main village, appointed himself mechanic to our stricken automobile. He had never fixed anything more complex than a windlass or a paraffin lamp but he led Adam away in search of ‘parts’ to fix the oil sump.

Adam followed him, his shoulders drooping, all his power as a civilized Westerner visibly ebbing away. An hour later the two of them returned with a half-tube of two-part-epoxy cement, with which Uncle Chakwanka intended to restore the damage to the pride of German engineering the following morning.

“It will never work. This old man must be bloody crazy,” said Adam, laughing without an ounce of mirth. “Has anybody else got a car around here? Maybe there’s a farmhouse somewhere that has a phone.”

Everybody laughed at the sight of the white man covered in oil and dust, looking wildly around for some sign on hope- and electric light in the distance, an aeroplane flying overhead, some ingenious technology to help him out of his predicament.

Songs to an African Sunset: A Zimbabwean Story  

Kathleen Broadhurst.



Kathleen Broadhurst is traveling freelance writer and photographer. Visit her website Travel Vicarious a blog about the places she goes and the people she meets.

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Tags: storySection: Travel Books
Location: Africa
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