Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A Zimbabwean Vampire Story

The Foreword to Herbert Wants to Come Home

There is a huge colony of Zimbabweans in the same country which helped to destroy Dambudzo Marechera and too many of them cannot find their way "home"- Dr Tafataona Mahoso, Ngozi and the struggle to revalue African life

"It's my boy; it's Herbert!" she cried, struggling mechanically. "I forgot it was two miles away. What are you holding me for? Let go. I must open the door."
"For God's sake, don't let it in," cried the old man trembling.
"You're afraid of your own son," she cried, struggling. – W.W. Jacobs, The Monkey’s Paw

How does an African man get to writing about vampires, a European myth? In a nutshell: years of cultural exchange. Or rather, years of cultural imposition. In post-Independence Zimbabwe, the vehicle for this imposition was not the missionaries, the schools and sheer brute force, but the state-owned broadcaster.

More personally, of course, I was exposed to the vampire myth at a very early age. I was nine, and my brother, Kudzai, was seven, when we begged our mother to let us watch ‘Salem’s Lot. Normally, we were not allowed to watch television after eight o’clock, but our father- a senior civil servant with the Ministry of Lands and Agriculture- was out on a trip to the countryside that Monday evening.

In retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea to let children watch ‘Salem’s Lot. I doubt that had she known what it was actually about, my mother would have let us see it. Suffice to say, we were not allowed to watch further episodes of the miniseries. But she did watch the following episode by herself, and told us about it the next day, for it was still a great story to tell.

The only other vampires that we got to see in the ‘80s were The Groovy Ghoulies and the recurring horror-themed sketch in the Wolfman Jack Show.
Later in life, I came across not only the book version of ‘Salem’s Lot, but also Bram Stoker’s Dracula and other classic works. There was also a vampire on Sesame Street, but this character was more a play on Dracula's title, Count, as he played numeracy games with child audiences than a real monster. I also read up on the history of the
vampire myth. While it is clear to me that we have nothing like it in the lore of my culture, I found it interesting that one of the European words for the modern vampire, moroi, sounds very much like muroyi, the word in my native ChiShona for “witch”. Even at that age, I was ready to learn not only about far away places and cultures, but also my own and make comparisons.

It’s been over ten years since many of my generation left the turmoil of Zimbabwe for South Africa, the U.K., the U.S., Canada, anywhere really. In that time, many of us have made a home in the lands were we live. While the recent emigration is a direct result of the political problems that have engulfed my country, our people have always been on the move. My great-grandfather trekked to South Africa and worked there for a while. Subsequent generations saw men leave the so-called Tribal Trust Lands where the colonial authorities had banished indigenous people to, to work the mines and factories. In fact, the young man leaving the village to seek his fortune, then inevitably falling aside to dissolution before finding his way back is a regular motif of colonial and early post-colonial Zimbabwean literature. You could even describe this genre as Zimbabwe’s first horror stories, as it always took supernatural manifestations to get the dissolute young man to return to his roots and reinforced the fear of loosing one's roots to young men in the real world.

By the time my parents married, families were becoming more urbanised. Kumusha or Ekhaya became for my generation where Sekuru/Malume (Grandfather) and Ambuya/Gogo (Grandmother) lived. For me, both sets of my grandparents did have property in the city and my paternal side only moved back to the country when my grandfather retired, so it is fair to describe me as completely urbanised.

When our generation moved abroad, it was easy to think of the whole of Zimbabwe as kumusha/ekhaya. Ten years later, many of us have settled here in the West. Settled here does not necessarily mean we are the roaring successes that we thought we’d be, that we set out to be or we would have never left. There are so many broken dreams, so many shattered hopes, that a pity party for the Zimbabwean community would last for months. There are so many of us right now hanging on in quiet desperation, too ashamed to catch a plane back to Zimbabwe and face a very judgmental, very unforgiving society. Or, more realistically, knowing that they no longer have the energy they had a decade ago to work and make things better here or back home. They feel that their life-force, the best years of their lives have gone. If there has been any pokol; vurderlak; eyalik, it has happened to the Zimbabwean people. That too is another set of fears.

Yet, few Zimbabweans would even entertain the idea of being buried here. The concept of kumusha/ekhaya is so deeply engrained in us. Despite the high cost of repatriating a body, despite reports that the Zimbabwe government will not admit the body of someone who now bears the passport of another country, we all want to be buried there. And, yes, that too is another set of fears.

I suppose going home to die is better than going home alive to face whatever issues one left, or even the ones that have brewed in one’s absence. Going home to die may be better too for the people at home. After so many years abroad, there is the fear among Zimbabweans who have remained behind that their relatives and friends have changed. Not only changed, but mutated.

That is what my story is about. And that is why it is a horror story. Horror stories are about that human emotion; fear. And for those returning, as well as those who wait for those who return, there is a lot to be afraid of. For those still in England, those determined to stay on, there is plenty to be afraid of too. It is no coincidence that Herbert dies at the time that the 2011 London Riots begin. But let me not give too much away.