World upside down: white farmers in Zimbabwe, six years after independence
World upside down: white farmers in Zimbabwe, six years after independence (Chris Steele-Perkins)

Bad Signs

More than 20 years after the guerrilla war that forged Zimbabwe from Rhodesia, fear and violence are once again convulsing that African nation—this time, with a black government pitted against white landowners. The author, who grew up on a farm in Rhodesia, recalls her child's-eye view of a world where even nature knew that luck had run out.

World upside down: white farmers in Zimbabwe, six years after independence

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When Duncan, our neighbors’ son, nearly shot Mum that night, it was almost a relief. It had been that kind of day. A day of trigger-happy nerves and accidents and omens—omens piling on omens like waves in a windblown, moon-sucked sea. The gun went off and the hot bullet sang through the air and lodged in the chair between Mum’s legs and Mum only jerked, the way an impala flicks a fly from its shoulder. My older sister, Vanessa, and I weren’t surprised at all. Given the kind of day it had been, it was a wonder Mum wasn’t hit if not killed.

Land of omens: black workers on a white-owned farm, before the fire next time Land of omens: black workers on a white-owned farm, before the fire next time
World upside down: white farmers in Zimbabwe, six years after independence World upside down: white farmers in Zimbabwe, six years after independence

Duncan himself—the 12-year-old almost-murderer of my mother—had been too busy killing cats that day to pay attention to the omens, or he never would have been playing with guns. (Killing cats to ascertain, as scientifically as possible, which was the least pleasant way to die: by burning, by drowning, or by bullet.) There are days like that, especially on a bad-luck patch of land all bunched up next to the Mozambique border, when you hope you don’t have to get out of bed because of the way the weather feels, all thick and ready and accident-prone. And if you must get out of bed, you’d better hope you don’t find yourself near a loaded gun, or a heavily pregnant woman, or a badly wired toaster.

THIS WAS WAR. This was Rhodesia fighting, limping, roaring, and crying toward independence. It was a war for land and for power and for justice, and I was a wide-eyed nine-year-old soaking it all in from the wrong side of the historical fence. I was a white child born of white parents in a black land, and we were fighting to keep black people powerless. But back then I didn’t know what was a just or unjust war. What I did know, somehow, was that when it was over, the country itself would remain, and a few men and women and children would remain, and all would be scarred, some on the outside from bullets and land mines, all on the inside from hatred and fear and suspicion. And I knew, too, that there was no telling who would be among their number. War, like bad weather, chooses its victims not by merit or demerit, but by chance.

So we paid attention to the omens, and staved off death and bad luck with the half-remembered rituals of whatever lands we had originally heralded from, which in our case was Britain. Pick up a penny, knock on wood, don’t walk under ladders, don’t look at a new moon through glass, don’t kill spiders, don’t rub a bumped elbow or scratch an itchy palm, never look into a mirror at dusk. And when bad luck poured on us, we’d think back to our transgression and blame our ill fortune on our own carelessness instead of on the capricious nature of war.

The arrogance of empire and the injustice of war had robbed the black Africans of their land, to which are linked so many of their own superstitions and where their ancestral spirits, the mudzimu and vadzimu, must return and be appeased if they are not to become vengeful ngozi. So when an owl swooped onto the roofs of their huts and hooted, when a drought turned their crops to dust, or when a child was burned by scalding water, the Africans blamed their homelessness, their dislocation—and, by extension, the white man—for their misfortune. This is what Chibodo told me. Chibodo had been hired by my father as a crop guard, but he was also, more important, a powerful n’yanga—a man of healing and magic—and so he knew these things. How could the spirits be appeased at a time of war? Chibodo said they could not be. The land had not been respected in the ways of the ancient customs, and because of this of course there would be more suffering. For this reason, Chibodo said, war is self-perpetuating. That is why bad luck follows bad luck.

THe DAY MUM WAS almost shot, there had been, all that long day and starting the evening before, the low-bellied purple heaviness of late-season rain, which brought a corresponding drag in our own bellies. When Dad left the farm early that morning in answer to government conscription, heading deep into the bush where the liberation fighters hid, he was more than usually quiet. He was anticipating the raw, hot itch and hurried meals and crouched misery of being in the depths of the jungle for the two weeks he was required to be away.

Mum just said, “Be careful, Tim,” and walked back into the house, as if resigned to losing him there and then. She didn’t even stay to watch him walk down the driveway toward the Land Rover that was waiting for him like a prelude to a hearse. I watched, though. He was a black shadow cut out against a steel backdrop because there’s nothing friendly about the way the sky looks when your dad’s going off to war with a rifle shrugged over his shoulder. And, as always, I bowed and prayed to the rising sun to keep watch over Dad. Then I said the “Ah Father” three times—once for Dad, once for the men who fought with Dad, and once for luck. After breakfast, Mum and I untied the horses, who were sleeping, fly-covered, under the shade of a fig tree in the garden. Mum gave me a leg up. “We need to get cracking,” she said. “The cows have been waiting for us since dawn.”

Up at the dip that morning (the clouds continuing their belly crawl over the mountains and the tops of the msasa trees), Cotton Blossom, our dairy cow, got turned in the chute. Startled by a clap of thunder, she tried to turn back around and instead wedged herself into the narrow corral, bent like a big, frantic paper clip. That would have been the end of our milk and cream and butter until we could afford to replace her. But Mum dived into the chase and caught Cotton Blossom in her own slim hips and somehow wrestled her front way forward again. A woman as thin and strong as a twist of wire and a stupid, terrified cow, both slipping in a foot of rained-on manure.

For two more hours we pushed cattle into the tick-killing dip, a long, narrow, five-foot-deep cement pool into which the cows plunged (heads held high) while a milky mixture of the powerful poison washed over their bodies and sprayed up into the humid day.

Then at lunchtime two of the six dogs started to convulse, having eaten cow shit sprinkled with tick dip. We were sitting under trees, eyes closed against the annoyance of flies. Mum and I were having tea, cardboard-tasting from the thermos, and dry bread-and-butter sandwiches. The cattlemen were eating slabs of mealie meal and oil in a cabbage relish, but really it was too hot for food, so we were just resting, letting our limbs hang loose in the humidity. It was one of the cattlemen who shouted, seeing the dogs begin to stagger and froth at the mouth. Mum told the men they’d have to finish the dipping without her, fergodsake, the dogs were dying. She slung Oscar over the pommel of her saddle (he was a big dog, too—a Rhodesian Ridgeback, still quivering and rigid with fits) and I took little Jacko, and we rode like hell all the way home.

The phone was struck dumb by lightning, so we couldn’t even call the vet, but Mum knew what to do, as usual. We pumped gallons of milk into the dogs until they puked and then Mum sank back on her haunches, tired even though the day was barely half done, and she said, “It’s enough to make you drink brandy at breakfast, isn’t it?” Which it was, and sometimes we did.

THEN THE LAND ROVER STARTED to smoke on the way to the neighbors’, where we were supposed to be spending the night. (Whenever Dad left for duty we weren’t allowed to sleep on the farm in case we were attacked, but Mum was the fiercer of the two warriors anyway.) So we all bailed out, and while Mum and Vanessa stood in front of the vehicle as if about to ask it a question, I dropped and rolled on the grass, the way we had been taught to do at school should we ever catch on fire. Mum said, “Stop making such a fuss now, Bobo, it’s not so bad,” and we climbed back into the truck, and although it continued to emit belches of smoke at irritable intervals the rest of the way, it didn’t actually blow up, which was lucky, because it had been that kind of day. The rain started when we got to the Viljoens’ house. Uncle Fanie and Auntie Rena were drinking sherry by candlelight, because the bloody electricity was out again. Duncan was cleaning the family rifle on layers of newspaper on the sitting-room floor.

Vanessa and I were allowed to share a Coke and a packet of salt-and-vinegar chips between us. Because we were both in love with Duncan, in spite of his cat-killing experiments, we were edged up as close to him as we could be without making it too obvious. Mum was sitting opposite us in the green armchair holding a glass of beer, and she had her elbows resting on her knees—the attitude of a tired woman. None of us was talking. The rain was chattering on the tin roof so loudly that we’d have to shout to be heard. Plus, we were all trying to think about nothing. We were all trying not to pay attention to our sense of dread.

And that’s about the time Duncan pulled the trigger and almost shot Mum, and after that the rain let up a little and things were a bit more cheerful. Even though we all still had an itchy, unfinished feeling in our stomachs, it felt as if we had cheated fate, dodged death, skirted the worst thing that could happen.

It was only the next day that we heard about Old Man Davis. Shot in the face at point-blank range when he got out of his pickup to open his garden gate. It was Dad’s unit, we found out, that had been called to respond to the attack, Old Man Davis’s widow calm on the radio when she spoke. Saying, “It’s happened, he’s dead, I think.” And it had been Dad himself who turned him over and saw the look on the old man’s face.

What Dad saw was that Old Man Davis had known he had it coming, just like we all had. It had been that kind of bad-luck day, which all the good-luck rituals, all the appeasements of spirits, could do nothing to change.

From Outside Magazine, Jan 2003 Lead Photo: Chris Steele-Perkins

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