The bugle call shatters the stillness of the shrine.
Its familiar but haunting melancholy cannot fail to move. Even the President seems misty-eyedbehind his glasses. Close to him in the widow’s placeof honour, I am aware of his every movement. Iwatch him without moving my eyes. Perhaps it is notmist in his eyes but the film of my own sudden tears.
The badges sprinkled on his sash of office shimmerand recede against the green of the material.
He brings his hands together in a clasp that puts the sinews of both hands into relief. It makes him, for afleeting moment, the very old man that he is.
Unexpected pity wells up inside me. Half-rememberedlines of poetry come unbidden to my mind: he growsold, he grows old; he shall wear the bottoms of histrousers rolled. There is a parting in his hair, where thewhite roots at his scalp show in the places that the dyehas not reached. Does he count the years and maybe just months and days that remain until he, too, issounded away by that bugle to lie beneath the black-ness of polished marble in the empty space next to thegrave of his first wife? The faces of the pallbearers are half-hidden by their olive berets. The sun glints on the metalinsignias on their epaulettes. Their sabres arereflected on the polished surface of their shoes. Theylift the coffin and hoist it upon their shoulders. Theflag that covers the coffin slides on the smoothness toreveal the casket of white and gold. The soldiers inthe front move their hands simultaneously to keepthe flag from slipping away.
They march in a one-step pause two-step pause progression until they reach the grave that is lined ingreen felt. The white man from the funeral home isstiff in his top hat and tails. Where do they find them,these white men with their pinched faces above theirfunereal clothing? There are almost no whites in the country now.
Everything is black and green and brown and white. Black is the marble of the polished grave-stones and the mourning clothes. Green is the presi-dential sash and the olive colours of the berets on theheads of the soldiers and the artificial shining ver-dancy of the grave. Black is the dark of the gatheredmasses who listen to the youth choir dressed for bat- tle in bottle-green fatigues, voices hoarse in theAugust heat, singing songs from a war that they arenot allowed to forget. Black and brown are the sur-rounding Warren Hills, the hills denuded, withstumps remaining where the trees were, the greentrees now the brown wood that replaces the electric-ity that is not to be found in the homes.
The bugle is still as the coffin is lowered. The sud- den silence unsettles me out of my thoughts of pres-idential mortality. I get ready to move forward towalk down to the grave. The President moves also,and I watch him, an old man still, but one who isCommander of the Armed Forces, Defier ofImperialism, and, as he was just moments ago,Orator at the Funerals of Dead Heroes.
Just under an hour ago, after the opening prayers andbefore the final salute, he gave his funeral oration.
‘He was a fine man, a gallant soldier in the fight for our liberation, a loving husband and father. We con-dole with his family and his widow, Esther, and urgeher to be brave at this time of inconsolable loss.’ The cameras of the national broadcaster found my face. I was beamed into televisions in homes acrossthe country, brave in my inconsolable loss. The cam-eras moved back to the President as he said, ‘I say to you today that, much like the gallant hero we buryhere today, you too must guard against complacency.
You must follow the example of our fallen comradewho lies here. We must move forward today andstrive ahead in togetherness, in harmony, in unityand in solidarity to consolidate the gains of our lib-eration struggle.’ I could see around me eyes glazing over at this sev- enth oration at the seventh hero’s funeral in fourmonths. They are being culled, all of them, age andAids will do its work even among the most gallant ofheroes; the Vice-President with the hooded eyeslooks like he may be next to go. It must be easy pick-ings to be the President’s speechwriter; all he seemsto do to write a new speech is strike out the name ofthe previously fallen comrade and replace it withthat of the newly dead.
The President spoke on. The Chief Justice nodded off. The Police Commissioner jerked to wakefulness asapplause broke out. Only the Governor of the CentralBank seemed to listen, face strained with avid atten-tion. At the funeral of the third dead comrade of theyear, just a week after the Cabinet had finally agreed onthe most patriotic figure at which the national curren-cy should be exchanged against the pound and theeuro and the dollar and the rand, the President hadannounced a different, even more patriotic figure.
I listened to the rhythm of his speech. Having addressed theme number one, the liberation strug-gle, it was time for the second theme. By the time Icounted down from ten, he would have begun toattack the opposition.
As I reached six, his voice echoed out over the hills.
‘Beware the puppets in the so-called opposition that are controlled from Downing Street. They seekonly to mislead with their talk of democracy.’ The microphone hissed slightly at puppets, making Downing Street was his cue to move to the next theme, the small matter of the country’s sovereignty:‘I say to Blair and to Bush that this country will never,a trillion trillion times never, be a colony again.’ The microphone gave a piercing protest at the tril- lion trillion, making the phrase jump out louder thanthe other words. There was a nugget of newness inthe use of trillion and not million as a measure of theimpossibility of re-colonisation. It is three monthssince inflation reached three million three hundredand twenty-five per cent per annum, making billion-aires of everyone, even maids and gardeners.
Rwauya, the eldest son of my husband, guides me down to cast gravel into the grave. He has abandonedhis usual dress of trousers of an indeterminatecolour and shirts which usually manage to exhibitboth the lurid colours of the national flag and thePresident’s face. Still, the raw smell of unwashedRwauya seeps through his crumpled suit. I try not toflinch as he takes my elbow and we follow thePresident past the graves of the men and two womenwho are buried here. My handful of dirt makes asplattered brown on the white surface of the coffin.
The family follows behind us. My husband’s sister Edna breaks into loud keening. ‘Brother,’ she wails asshe kneels beside the grave. ‘Come back, my brother.
Come back. You have not completed your tasks,brother. See how the nation longs for your return.’ She makes as though to jump into the grave, and is stopped by her daughters. She stumbles into thePresident’s wife, the Second First Lady, who soothesher with a perfumed hand to the shoulder. As Ednaheaves dry sobs against the black silk of the SecondFirst Lady’s suit, my eyes travel down to Edna’s shoes.
She really should start investing more money in hershoes; her unshaped peasant’s feet require somethingstronger than cheap zhing-zhong plastic leather shoesto contain them.
That Edna makes a spectacle of herself is not sur- prising. She is given to bursts of emotion calibrated for public consumption. She is always ready to beoffended on behalf of others. When I told their fam-ily twenty-one years ago that I was leaving her broth-er, she spoke to her sister in a whisper of theatricalresonance, the better to reach my ears.
Ngazviende,’ she said, ‘and good riddance. Real women were divorced to make place for a mhanjesuch as this one.’ Thus my introduction to the word mhanje: their word for the lowest form of womanhood, woman-hood without womanliness, mhanje being a barrenwoman, a woman without issue, unproductive, afruitless husk. There was no question that it could beher brother who was infertile. He had proved his viril-ity in the three children that he had with a woman hehad been married to even as he was marrying me inLondon in a council office with no central heatingbefore an official with mucus drip-dripping into hishandkerchief.
I thought I loved him; but that was in another I exulted to hear him say, ‘I want a wife who shares in my dreams; an equal, not a subordinate.’ I helpedhim to write furious letters of righteous indignationcondemning the white-settler regime and the situa-tion in his country. I forgot about the fight againstapartheid in my own country as his battle seemed more urgent. We wrote letters and hosted exiles andthrough long nights we argued about Fanon andBiko and Marx and Engels. That was before wearrived in the country after independence. Before Ifound out that my husband already had a wife withthree children, whose names were not gentle on thetongue.
Edna’s grave-diving attempts are the only hitch inthe choreographed order of the funeral procession.
After the immediate family, the important person-ages scatter earth over the coffin, the members of thePolitburo file past, then the heads of the army andthe air force, then the Police Commissioner and theDirector of Prisons, then the parliamentarians andthe judges according to seniority.
In the end, my words to Edna and my husband’sfamily were no more than empty threats. I was per-suaded to stay, although I can no longer rememberwhat empty promises I believed. I came to know thesubtlety of the intonations of their language, thatchimbuzi with the voice lowering over the middleand last syllable was a toilet, while chimbudzi withthe extra d and the voice rising on the middle and the last syllable was a young goat. I learned to pronouncehis children’s names, and in the end did not needhim, as he had done at first, to explain words to me.
‘I named the first child Rwauya, meaning “death has come”, and the second Muchagura to mean “youshall repent”, and the last Muchakundwa, “you shallbe defeated”. They are messages for the white oppres-sors, warning signs to the white man.’ Thus had he stamped his patriotism on his chil- dren before leaving them with names that couldmean nothing to the intended recipient of the mes-sages, to the white man who chose to live in igno-rance of native tongues. The white man has beenconquered now, twice over, first in the matter of gov-ernment, and now in the matter of the land that hasbeen repossessed, but the children remain with theirominous names. I got to know them well because Ireplaced their mother after their father divorced her.
‘There is no need for anything official,’ my hus- band said. ‘We are married under customary law,with no official papers. I will give her gupuro and shecan take that to her family.’ He picked out a pot witha red and yellow flower on it and gave it to her as asign that he had divorced her. She died three yearsafter that, but still, with her flowered pot and herearly death, she got the better end of the bargain.
Like the worthless dogs that are his countrymen, my husband believed that his penis was wasted if hewas faithful to just one woman. He plunged himselfinto every bitch on heat, even that slut of a news-reader, the ruling party’s First Whore, who lends theservices of her vacuous beauty to their nightly dis-tortions. She has been bounced from man to man,first as the mistress of a businessman who died withthe red lips that spoke of his illness and then as themistress of the Governor of the Central Bank, andafter that, as the mistress of a minister without port-folio. Just like my husband, to salivate over othermen’s leavings.
Muchakundwa and Muchagura are solemn in theirdark suits. They live in California now, where theystudy on government scholarships. They have cho-sen to seek their fortunes far from this sovereign landthat will never, a trillion trillion times never, be acolony again.
They left and Rwauya remained.
He would have been considered a failure, Rwauya, with his two O levels, but he is just the sort of personwho thrives in this new dispensation, where to keepahead is to go to every rally and chant every slogan.
Even with all the patronage that is meant to oil hispath to success, he has run down two butcheries and a bottle store, and, of six passenger buses, only oneremains. He is full of schemes and ideas that nevercome to anything.
Ndafunga magonyeti,’ he said to his father and me, from which we understood that he was thinking ofinvesting in haulage trucks. ‘If I buy just twomagonyeti, I will be okay.’ When the magonyeti scheme went down the prim- rose path along which went all others, he went fromimporting fuel and sugar to flying to Congo DRCand looting that country of cultural artefacts. Andwhen Congo had been emptied of masks with cut-out eyes and old wooden bowls and long-phallusedfertility figures, he turned his thoughts to local stonesculpture.
Ndafunga zvematombo,’ he said, and began to export substandard chiselled bits of soapstone thatwere called Eagle or Spirit or Medium or Emptiness.
‘If I make just two shipments, I will be okay.’ Now he wants his hands on the farm that my hus- band left. He arrived at the house four nights ago,looking like the death of his name, his eyes red fromcrapulence, with the mangy dreadlocks that are nowa declaration of African authenticity if you believethat the authentic Africa is a place without combs orwater to wash the hair. He gave me an embrace thatlasted a fraction longer than it should have, his hand brushing my bottom far from the shoulder where itshould have been.
‘You are looking very good, Mainini.’I have learned to dispense with the niceties of social discourse with Rwauya and go straight to theheart of the matter. To my ‘What is it you want?’ helaunched into a half-coherent account involving oneof the six ministers without portfolio, the Minister’sthree nephews, one of whom was married to thedaughter of the Chief of Police in Mazowe Districtwho was in turn married to a niece of the LandsMinister.
‘They have hired thugs to camp on the farm.
Imagine, just two years after Father took it over fromthat Kennington,’ he said. ‘You have to do somethingto protect the farm. This is an invasion. They have noright to take it. My father died for this country. Thatfarm is my birthright.’ ‘What is it that I can do?’‘Izvi zvotoda President. Ask to see the President.
Mainini, you have access, just ask to see thePresident.’ I could have talked to the President once, when hewas still called the Prime Minister, before thePresidential Powers Amendment Act, before he ditched the Marxist austerity of his safari suits forpinstripes and gold cufflinks, before he married hissecond wife, Her Amazing Gracefulness, Our FirstLady of the Hats. I was close to the inner circle then,close to his first wife, and we talked about womenand education into the night.
‘You are a coward,’ she said to him. ‘Isn’t he a cow- ard? I keep saying he should ban this demeaningpolygamy.’ His eyes laughed behind their glasses andhe asked us how he could do this when the peasantswere wedded to these arcane notions of life. TheMinister of Justice talked about the difficulty ofapplying Marxist–Leninist principles in the contextof African culture. ‘The changes wrought by the Ageof Majority Act show that, in the short term, law canbe an instrument of social change, but ultimately, itis not the consciousness of man that determines hismaterial being, but his material being that deter-mines his consciousness. Law is a superstructurewhich must also wither when the state withersaway.’ And we drank some more wine and argued about what would remain when the state withered away.
His wife gathered us to her in a small band of for- eign women that their men had married in theirexiles, some from as far away as Jamaica, England,Sweden, some from Ghana, Swaziland, South Africa.
We spoke English without feeling the need to apolo-gise and drank wine and watched films at State House.
We were well educated, all of us: Bachelors of Arts andMasters of Education, with three or four Doctors ofMedicine. Yet we seemed to accept that the world ofsalaried work was closed to us as we raised childrenand hosted parties at which the talk was dialecticalmaterialism and nation-building. When the WorldBank’s focus moved to empowering civil society, thedonor money poured in and we undertook projects,children’s foundations, disability programmes,women’s empowerment, adult literacy campaigns.
‘To help the nation-building process,’ we said, but, in reality, to keep ourselves busy and to close the chasm ofboredom that threatened to engulf us in its emptiness.
Then the First Lady died but before that there was the Willowgate car scandal. ‘Top Ministers Involved inIllegal Sales of Government Cars’, the newspaper head-lines screamed, ‘State House implicated in Willowgate’.
In the inner circle, we held our breaths and thought heads would roll and the peasants and workers wouldrevolt, and demand an accounting. The only thingthat happened was the death of a minister in asupremely self-indulgent act of suicide. His grave liesover there behind the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In our band of foreign wives, we were shocked as ourfriend and patron the First Lady was sucked to the centre of the scandal. We became less shocked as sheremained standing. The donor money poured in still,and we learned the benefits of creative accounting. Weassured ourselves that the creative accounting did notmatter because the peasants and the workers still gotthe benefit of the money.
She died, the First Lady, but even as his wife lay dying, the President kept an unofficial wife in a smallhouse and our husbands also set up small houses andscattered their seed in every province. My husbandand I were sent to a banana republic as the country’srepresentatives while the nation forgot about histhird scandal concerning government tenders.
We returned to an amnesiac nation, but our visits to State House were not as frequent. The unofficialwife in the small house had become the Second FirstLady at State House. She wore hats of flying-saucerdimensions while cows sacrificed their lives so thatshe could wear pair upon pair of Ferragamo shoes.
‘If only I could,’ she said to the nation’s orphans, ‘I A soldier steps out of the row of pallbearers with theflag folded in a neat triangular parcel. He salutes mebefore handing it to me. I let it sit in my lap with thestripes showing. I see the yellow and the green and the red and a bit of the black. The President looksinto the distance.
‘How can one man rule forever?’ was the questionthat obsessed my husband before he died. ‘Twenty-eight years, and still he wants to hang on?’ He joined in a plot to ensure that the next presi- dent would be from his province. There were secretmeetings. They had come to the farm, the heavy-weights as the press calls them, referring to theirassumed political influence, but the phrase could aswell refer to their stomachs that require heavy liftingfor all the copulation they seem to do with contest-ants and winners of beauty pageants. They plottedand schemed and the President got to know of theirplots and schemes as he gets to know of everything.
But the President was merciful; my husband’s grov-elling must have been so irritating that the only wayto put an end to it would have been to extend themagnanimous hand of presidential pardon. He didnot enjoy that forgiveness long because then he suc-cumbed to a long illness, to use one of many presi-dential terms for death from Aids. He died, leavingme relieved that it had been years since I was a wifeto him in any but the social sense.
‘Forward, march.’ The words are a strangled cry thatseems to come from deep within the intestines of asoldier whose face is contorted from the effort ofshouting them. This is followed by the rattle of adrum. The voice comes again and six soldiers marchin formation and stand over the open grave.
There is a drum roll.
‘Company, fire.’The soldiers shoot into the air.
‘Company, fire.’More gunshots.
‘Company, fire.’And so on until twenty-one rounds have been shot into the air and the coffin has been sent off in thepomp and pageantry of a full military funeral.
Tomorrow, the official newspaper will be full of a four-page photograph spread. They will say that my hus-band lay in state at Stoddard Hall before his coffin wasloaded on to a gun carriage and travelled in a fifty-carcortège to the national shrine at Warren Hills, where aservice from the official state priest was followed by anoration from the President, which was followed by atwenty-one-gun salute. There will be a full text of thePresident’s speech. And for at least a week, the funeralwill make up the entirety of the nightly news.
These are the ceremonies that give life to the rul- ing party’s dream of perpetual rule, the pompous nothingness of the President’s birthday celebrations,the state-sanctioned beauty pageants from whichthey choose new mistresses, the football matcheswith predetermined outcomes. The unity galas andmusical ‘bashes’, the days of national prayer, and,above all these, the state funerals.
I wonder what the masses would say if they were to be told that they have gathered here to bury a bitof wood covering a sack filled with earth while theman we mourn lies in an unmarked grave.
The newsreader who was my husband’s mistressannounced that my husband was to be made anational hero. The Politburo had declared him ahero to be buried at the national shrine. They did nottell me, his widow, of this decision and I had to hearit from his whore on the evening news. ‘The shrine iswhere they lay the gallant sons who fought in the lib-eration struggle,’ she added, helpfully.
What she does not say is that my husband is fortu- nate to have been awarded the status at all. Onlythose who had not disagreed with the President atthe time of their deaths become heroes. A committeeweighs the gallantry. It is sometimes necessary toupgrade those that were not gallant enough but sangwell enough and danced high enough in the praise of the President to earn them a place there. My husbandhad been measured and the scales declared him wor-thy. He had never held a gun in his life. He knewnothing of the forests of Mozambique where theguerrillas trained. His main contribution to nation-building was to unite the nation in gossip over hisfive scandals. The scandals and his recent disloyaltyhave been discarded and all that matters is that heconsolidated the gains of the liberation struggle bydevotedly introducing the President by his full totemname.
In the end, they came to pay their respects and to ‘His body will lie in state at Stoddard Hall,’ the presidential spokesman said. ‘He will proceed toWarren Hills for a full military burial.’ ‘Those were not his wishes,’ I said. ‘He wishes to be There was silence.
‘His bones would not rest easy, he said, if he did not lie in the land in which he was born, where his ances-tors are buried, and where he wants the bones of hischildren, and his children’s children and their chil-dren in turn to lie with his when their time comes.
‘It was his obsession in the end,’ I continued. ‘He believed that only if he lay in his home village wouldhe find peace.’ I was sure that the reference to a potentially restless spirit would appeal to the atavistic instincts of theCabinet members. They believe in the supernatural,after all, haunting traditional healers for success-guaranteeing potions and agitating for a law to pun-ish witchcraft.
‘We have no option but to go ahead with the funeral,’ the spokesman insisted. ‘The announcementhas been made by the President himself; to go backwould . . .’ His voice trailed off but he did not need tofinish the sentence. The President is not a man wholoses face.
In the end, it was perhaps not so much the fear of my husband’s ngozi spirit that made them treat mewith respect as it was the necessity of avoiding theembarrassment that would result if I carried out mythreat to go to the private press. They sent one emis-sary after another to talk to me, until they sent threeheavyweights from the Politburo. After allusions tothe family honour and talk of a personal triumph formy husband, came this plea: ‘Think of how good itwill be for his region.’ My husband was from the restive tribe in the south that sleeps and feeds and knows not the President.
They carry a chip on their shoulder the size of theirprovince. They do not have enough power, enoughheroes at the national shrine. My husband’s hero sta- tus would, they believed, quell the restive tribe, andstill the fires that burned in the party over who willsucceed the President. And in that realisation, I sawmy future. I have no home in my own country to goto; everything that I have invested is here. I couldchoose to be an official widow to be trotted out atevery commemoration of the heroes.
Or I could choose my own path.
‘I want my husband’s farm back,’ I said, ‘and I want it registered in title deeds in my name. I alsowant an uncontested seat in the new Senate.’ So the bargain was sealed: for a seat in the new Senate, and a farm in my own name, I would closemy mouth and let them bury wood and earth in hisname. They jumped at this; how could they not,when my husband had died in early August, whichmeant that they could have a real funeral on thevery day in the middle of August that they com-memorate men of the ruling party who have diedstill in agreement with the President. And so thespokesperson arranged everything, the coffin, theservice, the switch after the lying in state atStoddard Hall. He measured out exactly the precisekilograms of earth to represent my husband’s deadweight. ‘It must feel like the soldiers are carrying areal body,’ he said.
They have sounded the last post and fired the twenty-one-gun salute. I count slab upon slab of polishedmarble covering the desiccated bones of the deadheroes. One of them will soon cover the earth that isstanding in for the flesh and bones of my husband.
There are many such secrets here, what the French call les secrets de Polichinelle, secrets that everyonemay know but which may not be spoken. It is knownthat one of the heroes we buried recently was not thefine upstanding family man of the presidentialspeech but a concupiscent septuagenarian who diedfrom a Viagra-induced heart attack while inside anunderage girl. And it is known that the Governor ofthe Central Bank who has vowed to end illegal salesof fuel is himself involved in sales of fuel on the blackmarket. And that the President . . . well, that which isnot spoken or written down is not real.
Only the official truth matters, only that truth will be handed down through the history books for thechildren to learn. This they will learn: my husband isa national hero who lies at the Warren Hills. WarrenHills is the national shrine in a land presided over bythe wisest of rulers. The land is one of plenty withhappy citizens. The injustices of the past have beenredressed to consolidate the gains of the liberationstruggle. And in that happy land, I will be a newfarmer and senator.

Source: http://theorwellprize.co.uk/wp-content/files_mf/petinagappahanelegyforeasterly.pdf

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