At the age of nine, Nyeredzi was trying to work out who she was as a human being. After a couple years of beautiful harvests, drought arrived to devour people and animals. It was as if the sky’s brightest star was angry at them. As though they had done something wrong and were being punished for it.
One day in November, she set off with her mother for the Duva dam. The bush that was once green was now just dirt littered with beige plants. Twigs and dead leaves crunched under Nyeredzi and Zuva’s sandals with every step they took. After walking about four kilometers, they stopped to rest under the fig tree. The gully that criss-crossed the land was a reminder of what was once there—the riverbed was dry.
Nyeredzi ran around picking up round pebbles scattered on the riverbed and throwing them in the air. When she grew tired, she returned to stand in the shade of the fig tree with her mother. A pigeon fell from a branch like a rock onto the dry ground, a reminder that the drought took many lives. Its chest heaved, pulsating with its final breaths. It was as if the weak were being weeded out.
Nyeredzi bent down to touch it, but Zuva held her hand. Within seconds, another bird dropped from the tree, and that’s when Zuva said they should leave. If the birds that flew close to the heavens were falling upon them like that, then it was a bad omen.
They walked under the hot sun, following the path that people used by the banks of the river as though they were looking for something on the riverbed. The reeds had withered, and some had dried on the parched soil. Zuva and Nyeredzi were not sweating anymore but their bodies were sticky. When Nyeredzi touched her skin, it burnt her.
“Mama, aren’t we roasting under the sun that promised to give us light?” Nyeredzi asked. “Why do we keep on digging the soil that soon buries us?”
Zuva turned to her daughter and looked in her eyes. “Because we are searching for our ancestors and when they hear the sound of a hoe digging, they know we are searching for them. In return, they bless us with what you and I eat.”
“I thought that was God who does that,” Nyeredzi said.
“Isn’t God your ancestor? Weren’t you created from his image?”
Zuva kept on walking. They passed the carcasses of small dead animals along the edges of the pathway, insects crawling over them. The stench reminded Nyeredzi of a rotten rat she had smelled once.
Under the burning sky, she imagined they were paddling on a vast red ocean with their feet. When she licked her lips, they were as salty as the sea and parched. It was not the first time she had felt like this. There were times when Nyeredzi played outside with her friends, Hope and Marvellous, and they would stop to rest their hands on their knees trying to catch their breath; dry, hot air had sucked away their strength.
At the Duva dam, there was nothing but a small muddy puddle at the center. All the fish were dead. Frogs blew bubbles and croaked underneath the shallow brown water. The sides of the dam looked iron–hard, cracked, like the landscape of a planet. An army of ants crawled through the gaps, marching toward the dead fish and back to the hole again to feed their queen.
Further away, the pine trees which surrounded the hill looked as though they were offering themselves before the sun. The buildings of Agric company were fenced with a gray Durawall. Its black corrugated roof rippled in the heat mirage. A few humming vehicles crossed over the bridge of Dargaville road, disappearing from the Durawall fence. To her right, the Olivine company’s cylindrical buildings stood tall, and then there was just the blue sky and the huge expanse of the bush with its rocks and dead trees.
Nyeredzi could see how concerned her mother was. It was as though their ancestors had forgotten about them and swallowed all of the saliva left above the Earth. There was no need to dig the land that year. No need to search for those who came before them, as Zuva had described. They would not be heard anyway.
Nyeredzi and Zuva had come to see if there was any water in the dam. Food grew scarce and expensive. Zuva sent Edward and Dingani, who rented their cottage to different places just looking for mealie meal. What they found was not white maize, but yellow mealie meal imported from other countries. Three meals became two meals. People learned to cope with that. Nyeredzi did too; Zuva had taught her to fast before. People were encouraged to stay indoors as the heat itself killed anything that breathed. They were encouraged to save water as much as they could but the Taha family were still forced to kill most of their chickens in a short time because they had started dying on their own.
Each day came slow and ended slow. In the evenings, the family had a little energy to walk around. Mr. and Mrs. Manjo came to their house one night to visit.
“Mr. and Mrs. Manjo, please come in,” said Mwedzi. He got up to shake Mrs. Manjo’s hand, and then gave Mr. Manjo a brief hug with a wide smile on his face.
Ruth, Abigail, and Hannah got up from the three–seater sofa and moved to the bench. Mr. and Mrs. Manjo sat down, looking surprised. Perhaps they were not expecting all of the girls to move seats. Nyeredzi hopped on to the sofa and sat next to Mr. Manjo, looking at his face that was now starting to wrinkle.
“We have come because death is knocking on our doors,” he said.
“We do see that,” Zuva said.
“What do you suggest?” Mwedzi asked.
“The Ndima Ndima dance,” Mrs. Manjo responded.
“We need the ancestors to hear us.”
“All that bloodshed on the bush,” Zuva said, shaking her head.
“We better do it now, I think,” Mr. Manjo said, looking at Zuva and Mwedzi for their approval.
Nyeredzi was curious about what Zuva was going to do. In their community, if people had devoted their lives to being Christian, they should not be seen going back to their old traditional ways. Some people weren’t bothered by being Christian and a traditional believer at the same time, but Zuva was a church leader.
“You know we can’t get involved,” Zuva told him.
“We thought we should come to you first,” Mrs. Manjo said.
“We do appreciate that,” Zuva said.
After Mr. and Mrs. Manjo left, Nyeredzi thought about what her mother had always told her. God was their ancestor; Nyeredzi was created from the image of God. But if everyone else was gathering for this dance, she wanted to be there, even if it was a clash between the religions. She wanted to know what lay beneath what other people believed, whether she had been praying to the right God.
It would be the first time in her life witnessing a dance that called upon their ancestors, begging them to hear them. She had seen some dances at school but not as serious and important as the one their neighbors were planning.
In the following days, Mr. and Mrs. Manjo went from house to house, telling people about the Ndima Ndima dance. From what Nyeredzi heard her parents say, a lot of them were on board, prepared to do anything that would save them from the drought—from death.
Mr. and Mrs. Manjo often returned to ask Zuva questions. Where was it suitable to perform the dance? How many people would be appropriate to participate? Was food needed too? Were the children allowed to come along? They seemed to seek Zuva’s approval, and Nyeredzi wasn’t sure why? Perhaps, she thought, it was because her mother was a church leader.
People had chosen to perform the dance on a weekend when everyone was not occupied with work or other activities. It was to start at noon. Next to the curve of the riverbed, the ground was cleared, and maponde were spread for people to sit under the Msasa tree. Its red leaves shimmered bright from afar. Some people said it was ancestors’ blood rising from underneath, and that’s why it was still alive. Others said that was where ancestors went when the land was dry. The tree was the communicator between the dead and living people, and it spat drops of water when people took shelter underneath it.
From their house, Nyeredzi saw people walking to the bush. Women had wrapped their heads in scarves, and around their waist they wore a large piece of fabric, zambia. Some were patterned; others bore the words, Madzitateguru edu tisunungurei. Set us free, our ancestors. Nyeredzi wondered if people always had those things in their wardrobes. Not knowing made her feel like she was an outsider among her own neighbors.
“Mama, everyone is going—should we go too?” Nyeredzi asked, expecting her mother to say no.
“We are all going,” Zuva answered from her bedroom.
Nyeredzi was surprised because Zuva had told Mr. and Mrs. Manjo she couldn’t get involved. Her sisters refused to join them, so Nyeredzi was the only one going with her parents. In her arms, Zuva held a bonde. Her father was holding a round clay pot filled with water. They walked toward the bush alongside other people, the streets quiet. No one was listening to the radio or watching TV that day. Nyeredzi noticed that, like her parents, people were carrying things related to their own cultures.
When they arrived at the prepared area, Mwedzi placed the clay pot he held in his hands under the Msasa tree. Zuva spread the bonde on the ground nearby, in front of the tree, and they all sat on it. Nyeredzi admired the drawings on the clay pots: small figures of women carrying pails on their heads from the river, men hunting in the forest. She wanted to get up to touch the crushed leaves that floated in the pots circling the tree. She wanted to step onto the dancing area covered with mealie meal and sand—feel the coldness of the animal horns set aside in a rutsero. She wanted to do everything and play the mbira, drums, and shakers placed next to the riverbed.
Many people were still arriving and Nyeredzi kept looking back until she saw her sisters approaching the dance place too.
“Mama, look—they are coming,” Nyeredzi said, pulling Zuva’s hand. Perhaps she would enjoy watching the dance with her sisters. Maybe they would start seeing things the way she did.
“Very well then,” Zuva said. She didn’t seem surprised. “Why do we have to start the dance after midday?”
“Because we do not want to wake the ancestors in the morning, and if we do it in the evening, we don’t want to disturb their sleep.”
“Haven’t they been sleeping all along?”
Zuva looked at her. “You may think they are sleeping because when you put someone in the box, they will be in a sleeping position, but the soul rises. It’s not sleeping anymore.”
“Like King Jesus did—he resurrected?”
Zuva folded her arms in front and looked out over the crowd. Mwedzi was talking to another man sitting next to him. Nyeredzi’s sisters arrived and sat behind them on the bonde. They looked on with curiosity of the dance but pretended as though they weren’t. Hundreds of people were waiting and Nyeredzi could see how anxious they were. Some ended up sitting on the dusty ground or on rocks because there weren’t enough maponde. Others stood at the back.
One man wearing black shorts walked to the center of the dance area. The crowd fell quiet. He had tribal drawings painted in white and red on his naked chest, arms, and around his eyes. Zvuma dangled on his neck. He knelt on the soil and raised his hands in the air.
“To our ancestors, your great–grandchildren are here today. We are here. You sacrifice a lot for us, and still, we break the rules. On behalf of my brothers who have killed on this land, forgive us?”
He stood up and walked over to the men holding shakers. Within seconds, the mbira was on his lap, and his fingers moved swiftly. The rhythm drew everyone who was sitting on the ground and rocks. A group of men appeared from a dense bush, walking toward the drums, and picking them up. They began to tap on the drums, the sound growing. Some of them grabbed the shakers and hummed with deep low voices.
It raised hairs on Nyeredzi’s skin. From that moment, she knew she was not an outsider. The ancestors had arrived before they’d been summoned, before Nyeredzi had devoted herself to them. They followed the line of the blood, and she knew that she had it inside her veins.
From Ndima Ndima. Used with permission of the publisher, Catalyst Press. Copyright © 2023 by Tsitsi Mapepa.