Taken

Imarii? When I lived in Zimbabwe, this was one of the most important Shona words that I learned. Imarii means, How much is it? Whenever I went to buy fruits and vegetables or other items in the market, I would be quoted at least eight times more if I didn’t ask in the Shona language about the price. As a murungu (white person), I would generally be viewed as a visitor and would be charged more. Sometimes when I asked in Shona I would still be quoted a ridiculous amount, but after a quick aiwa (no!) and a shake of the head, I’d usually get a fair price.

Here in Canada, I wish there was a similar way for me to pay an appropriate amount for goods and services that I’m not knowledgeable about. When I left my car at the service station this morning, I expected to pay just over $200 for an oil change, new wipers and a summer tire installation. By the time I picked up my car in the afternoon, I needed to pay nearly $1,000, which is a significantly higher amount. This kind of situation happens to me more frequently than it should.

When it comes to things such as home repairs or car servicing, I have no idea how much these goods and services should cost so I’m occasionally taken advantage of when I seek out assistance. I’m never sure whether I’m supposed to bargain or haggle in these situations, and I wouldn’t know what work would be essential or not anyway. I wish there was a guidebook that could help me navigate through my interactions with tradespersons and salespersons.

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Fearful Courage

“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”—Emma Donoghue

Ten years ago this month, R and I visited a friend in Lubumbashi, which is the second-largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lubumbashi is also the mining capital of the country, and has its own small airport. I was excited to visit because they had Western food items in their markets such as Nutella and chocolate that we could bring back with us to Zimbabwe.

One morning when our friend was at work, R and I went for a walk to visit the national museum. Along the way, we were stopped by soldiers who said that we had broken the law by stepping on their grass. They grabbed R and escorted her into their compound. Having heard some horrific stories about the treatment of women by Congolese soldiers, I was immediately concerned for R’s safety. I managed to block the gate door from closing by sticking my foot into a small gap and then squeezed the rest of my body into the doorway.

The soldiers appeared drunk and carried rifles, so I did my best to be as assertive as possible without coming across aggressively. I told the soldiers that R needed to stay with me and asked them to release her. Since R’s French was much better than mine, she also told them repeatedly that we could not be separated. I’ve never been more scared in my life or as quick to pray to God for help.

I’m not sure whether the soldiers were just playing games with us or they simply changed their minds about taking R, but eventually they let us leave the compound together without further incident. Hours later, my heart was still pounding feverishly. Even a decade later, the memory remains vivid and intense.

It’s possible to be fearful and brave simultaneously; they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, far too many people in the world must embody some form of fearful courage every day in order to survive their personal circumstances and environment.

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Etched From Stone

When we lived in Zimbabwe, I enjoyed visiting areas where local artists displayed their stone sculptures.  Whether working with serpentine or soapstone or another form of mineral, the Shona sculptors possessed the ability to carve people, animals and intricate shapes from rough pieces of rock that they then smoothed and polished into beautiful pieces of art.

Before we returned to Canada, I purchased a number of Shona sculptures of various sizes, designs and colours that captured my interest. While most of our sculptures are polished and completed, my favourites are the ones that feature rough stone on the outer edges, showcasing the rawness of the original rock.

My most treasured piece of stone art, however, is a small and unfinished sculpture that I found in a junk pile. From the rear, it looks like an ordinary rock that wouldn’t warrant a second glance, but when you turn it around, you can see the carving of a man emerging from a dark cave. There is something so simple but yet profoundly human about the carving despite the fact that it was never completed. I’ve often wondered if the artist felt he messed up the carving and then decided it wasn’t worth salvaging.

I’m drawn to a similar rawness in other people. When they come across as too polished and complete, I feel as though there is something artificial or manufactured about them. They’re nice to look at and admire, but I can only guess at how they became that way. I like to discover a bit of the rough stone that they’ve been etched from as this portrays a work of art that is authentic, alluring and unfinished.

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Manure

When we lived in Zimbabwe, I grew vegetables in four large garden plots behind our home. I planted tomatoes, carrots, onions, aubergine, peppers and various types of lettuce, so we always had a consistent supply of fresh produce. I also cultivated a small garden plot below our guava trees for herbs and strawberries.

Before moving to Zimbabwe, I knew nothing about gardening. Thankfully one of our friends, M, had studied agriculture in university when he lived in Congo Brazzaville, and he took great interest in teaching me. M showed me how to till the soil in our backyard and how to plant vegetables from seeds and seedlings. In order to promote growth, we also burned some maize husks and scattered and stirred the ash into the soil.

In addition to the ash, M told me I needed to acquire some cow manure to enrich the soil. One of my neighbours, C, often travelled around the country to visit farms and agricultural projects, so I asked if he could get me some manure.

A week later, I came home and found two large bags of cow manure in my backyard. I went to work right away, breaking up the cow pats with my hands over the garden plots and then mixing the manure into the soil with a rake. This took me almost two hours, but I was excited to have completed the task myself. I was becoming a real farmer.

When C came by later, he asked about the manure. I said thanks and told him I’d put it in the garden already. He looked at me incredulously and asked, “All of it?” It turns out that there was enough manure in the two bags for all of our neighbours.

That day I learned that sometimes shit is a valuable resource that promotes vibrant growth, and that a little bit of it goes a long way. You don’t need (or want) too much of it in your life or in your garden. I was also reminded of how easily westerners like me can waste resources that could benefit a whole neighbourhood.

I did, however, grow some spectacular tomatoes and onions after I added the manure to the garden, so perhaps a big dump of it is a good thing from time to time.

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Tawanda

Ten years ago, my wife, R, and I lived in Harare, Zimbabwe. During our two years there, the country faced considerable economic and political challenges. While we never suffered, we were not immune to the ongoing shortages of food, medical supplies, water and electricity. More significantly, we lived alongside Zimbabweans who faced these challenges without our privileged access to extra income or resources.

Tawanda was one of my favourite people in Zimbabwe. Although only four, he would often show up at our home to visit. He mostly spoke Shona, so spending time with him helped me to learn the language as we worked in the garden together or watched movies on my laptop. Tawanda means “we are many” in Shona, signifying that he was the fifth and youngest child in his family.

Soon after we arrived in Zimbabwe, Tawanda’s family invited us to their home for supper. While the offal (cow intestines) was a bit of a departure from our usual dinner fare, we appreciated the opportunity to spend time with the family. R kept scraping her offal onto my plate, which made her look like a doting wife instead of just a picky eater. Over the next two years, we developed a close relationship with this wonderful family.

When R was five months pregnant with K, our first child, we returned to Canada. It was not easy to leave our Zimbabwean friends, particularly as it was a difficult time in the country due to increasing political violence. During K’s birth, both he and his mother required emergency medical attention, so I’m grateful we were in Canada and had access to exceptional health care. K’s middle name is Tinashe, which means “God is with us” in Shona.

About a year after we’d moved back to Toronto, we received terrible news from Zimbabwe. Tawanda had woken up with stomach pains. Without easy and quick access to qualified medical professionals, Tawanda’s family could do little to help him. A few hours later, he passed away. Despite the shortness of his life, Tawanda had brought so much joy to his family and friends. For those of us who knew and loved him, we felt an immense emptiness in our hearts. A void not easily filled or understood.

While I cherish the many health benefits my family can access in Canada, I’m saddened that there are so many children in the world like Tawanda who die young, often for lack of access to basic medical attention or the resources to pay for it.

When B, our second child, was born six years ago, we gave him the middle name of Tawanda in honour of this gentle and joyful young Zimbabwean whom he will never meet but his parents will never forget.

Tawanda. We are many.

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Totems

When I lived in Zimbabwe, people often asked me about my mutupo. In Shona culture, a mutupo, or totem, is an important symbol of identity within clans and communities. Each person is given the same totem as their father, which could be an animal such as the lion (shumba), elephant (nzou), zebra (mbizi) or monkey (soko), or even a body part such as the leg (gumbo) or heart (moyo). Early on I was adopted as a shumba, while my wife, Rochelle, became a soko murehwa. Yes, this means I married a monkey.

It is forbidden to eat of your totem, so a mhofu cannot eat of an eland, a ngwena of a crocodile, nor a bpepe of a lung. More importantly, you cannot marry within your own totem, which helps prevent intermarriage within tribal groups.

In Zimbabwe, it’s highly respectful and formal to address people by their totem. Once people knew that I was a shumba, this became the primary name used to address me. Rochelle, in turn, was referred to as Amai Shumba, or Mrs Lion.

My totem connected me with other shumba across the country. As I travelled around Zimbabwe, I met hundreds of new fathers and brothers who were my extended family. In addition, it felt as though I met thousands of fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law who I was connected to through my wife’s totem of soko murehwa. Why so many more in-laws? Well, if you had to get down on the ground and clap your hands for every ambuya (mother-in-law) who called you her mukwasha (son-in-law), you’d also think the numbers were significantly higher. Rochelle used to share an office with a woman who was also married to a tsoko, which made her one of my many ambuya. Every time I entered their office without knocking first I was reminded that I owed my ambuya a fine. There are so many rules for mukwasha to follow. Let’s just say that I still owe a lot of chickens for my many infractions. And let’s not discuss the many conversations about lebola (bride price or dowry).

There is something beautiful about the way in which totems connect people in Zimbabwe. The totems are also accompanied by praise names, such as shumba nyamuzihwa, and praise poems and songs, which help people to understand their history and origins.

However, there is also something troubling about how this can negatively impact abandoned babies who grow up without a familial totem and praise name. In a culture which generously encourages families to look after all of its members (even extended family), it is sadly not expected, and sometimes even superstitiously avoided, to look after those who do not belong to your family or who have no known connection to their ancestors. This lack of a totem can also impact a person’s ability to marry or to be buried appropriately. In a country with such a low life expectancy, and with so many orphans and vulnerable children, this is a concern that can’t be ignored, particularly when it puts marginalized people at even more risk of isolation.

But when I think to my first culture here in Canada, with our western notion of closed and small family groupings, I still prefer the wider sense of community and familiarity found in Shona culture. I miss travelling through Zimbabwe to new communities with the expectation that I will be closely connected with others living there, despite knowing that I will likely need to get down on my knees and clap for my countless ambuya.

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