The healer’s house was a tiny four-roomed matchbox building nestled between two larger houses on a dusty street. The road in front of it had long vanished leaving gaping potholes that filled with water in the rainy season. Dusty children with dirt-caked soles and equally dusty clothes played on the street. Shrieking laughter and screams could be heard all the way from the bus stop. This was one of those neighbourhoods whose roads and dirt paths were always filled with people. Groups of boys sitting on boulders at street corners, thin men reeking of alcohol filling the verandas at the store, women hawking wares on every street corner. Everything was alive.
The sun was blazing hot by the time the kombi dropped my sister Bongi and I at the bus stop. It was only 10am but my clothes were drenched with sweat. My t-shirt was sticking to my back. I could tell we had a long day ahead of us and my mood was already worsening. We made our way through the old streets, a maze in my eyes. Bongi’s keen sense of direction led the way. I could hardly see where we were going.
We stopped in front of a tiny blue gate. Bongi opened a section of it and we stepped through. The house, built with red brick, was unpainted. There was black smoke rising behind it. The front door was shut. We went around to the side intending to use the back door. Several people were sitting along the wall on chairs with torn fabric and stuffing pooling over it. I pursed my mouth with disgust. I hated torn chairs.
“Salibonani,” said my sister, greeting the people seated.
“Yebo,” rose the chorus of voices in response. I kept quiet, discomfort settling in my belly. I smiled faintly, out of embarrassment. My sister sat on the one free chair and I stood next to her. “Is gogo here?” my sister asked the woman next to her. “Yes, they’re still cleaning inside, they told us to wait.” We waited in silence for a while. My sister struck up a conversation about how difficult life in the republic was since the coup, how everyone, especially her, was suffering. I was annoyed at how much information she was divulging to this total stranger. A young girl came out of the house just then. She had a notepad and a chewed-out pen in her hand. She came straight to us.
“Salibonani, are you here to see gogo?”
“Yes” my sister replied
“What are your names?”
“Bongi,” said my sister. The girl wrote her name down. She looked at me
“What about you uncle?” I cringed. I did not think I looked old enough to be called uncle.
“Mandisi,” I said, my voice icy. She jotted my name down and scampered off. Bongi and her new friend carried on their conversation. The sun was beginning to creep to the side of the house. The rays were singeing our feet. I drew back, flattening myself on the wall. Bongi glanced at me, slowly shaking her head.
The young girl returned after a while and called us into the house. It was as small as it looked from the outside. The kitchen was tiny and crammed in it were two fridges and an old cabinet. There was a room off to the side of the kitchen. The voice of a woman wailing in a slow song travelled from wall to wall inside the house. I could not make out the words but her voice sounded strange as though she had drunk too much and her throat had somehow decreased in size.
We were shown seats in the small living room. An old display cabinet sat in one corner and a weathered room divider stood against the wall in the middle of the room.. A television that only played one channel sat in the room divider and stack of satellite decoders next to it. The couches were inexplicably comfortable. On the left side of the living room was an open door leading to what seemed like a bedroom. We sat there in silence staring at the hazy television. The young girl emerged from the room next to the kitchen and called the first person on her list. A middle-aged man stood up, head bowed, and went into the room. Despite my earlier apprehension that we were in for a long day, I had hoped the man would be in there for a short while. He emerged, looking tired but triumphant, after two hours. The young girl emerged with him handing a few tiny wrapped packages to him. She whispered what seemed like instructions into his ear, he nodded fervently. The girl led him to the door. She returned to the living room and called the next person on her list.
Our turn finally came a few hours later. By then my earlier mood had lifted, my body too tired to hold that kind of strain. We stood up slowly, Bongi and I, and went into the room. It was surprisingly large. There was a couch pressed against the wall. A closet sat in one corner and different kinds of fabric pieces hung from a wire strung across the roof panels. In the middle of the room sat an old woman. She wore a pleated red skirt that was tied around her waist. Under her thigh were a small knobkerrie and a tiny bottle of snuff. She sat on a piece of leopard skin that sat on a large reed mat.
The young girl instructed us to remove our shoes. We did so tentatively. Next, she instructed us to wash our hands in a bowl of water mixed with mysterious herbs. Then we sat down, legs crossed in front of the old woman. She began singing. The song was a chant, a story about seeking help from those ‘in the wind.’ As I sat there watching her, her face twisted and eyes closed I suddenly felt as though I was facing a very ancient being. When she finished we cupped our hands and clapped them together. Bongi and the young girl ululated. Then the old woman began to speak.
“Vazukuru you have come” she spoke in Shona mixed with a language I did not recognize.
“Yes we have come gogo” we said.
“I see that your hearts are heavy. You have many troubles weighing you down”
“Yes, gogo” we agreed. She looked in my direction, eyes closed. A chill ran down my spine.
“You, mzukuru, I see that you have returned from far away. You were not planning on returning, and yet here you find yourself. You cannot find a job to save your life, you are like a dead thing walking around aimlessly. Is that not right?”
I was frozen. When I did not immediately respond Bongi shoved an elbow into my ribs. I started.
“Yes gogo,” I said.
She paused and nodded, turning to Bongi. She described Bongi’s broken love life and general lack of success. She turned back to me. “The solution is simple.” Pause. “You must align with those in the wind.”
“Ok gogo, how do we do that?” Bongi asked. Gogo smiled.
“You must go to the water.”
At gogo’s insistence, we agreed to go with her to her ancestral home. “There is a river whose guardians I trust,” she had said. The road to said ancestral home was dust and stones. The car we hired to take us there violently rattled from side to side as the driver cursed and negotiated the car’s wheels between the larger rocks. Bongi, Tembi (Bongi’s friend and confidant who had insisted on coming with us), the young girl from gogo’s whose name we had learned was Ellis and I sat in the back. Gogo sat in the front.
In her normal state gogo looked completely different. She was not old as I had thought earlier. She was middle-aged, stylish and incredibly beautiful. On the day we first went to see her, we had watched in awe as the spirit which inhabited her body when she consulted people, left at the end of the day. Her skin smoothed out, her body unfolded as though she were regenerating. Her eyes were a beautiful amber, sharp and full of mischief. She sat now with a beer bottle in hand, having downed three before we left. She was regaling us with stories of an umgido she had hosted the previous year.
“I closed out the whole street. I don’t play. Even back in my neighbourhood they know me. It was such fun. It lasted three days and you know when I do umgido even a twenty-four pack of beer isn’t enough for me.”
“Ahh, gogo!” Tembi exclaimed.
“I’m telling you. You guys you don’t know. Ask this one here,” pointing to Ellis “She will tell you. Phela my ancestors want a lot of beer offerings, especially umqombothi seven days brew.”
We giggled. I looked out the window. The landscape on either side of the road was lush and green with large kopjes peppered throughout.
“Look over there,” gogo pointed to a path that veered off the road. “King Mzilikazi’s grave is that side. I used to go there to brew beer. There were things there that he was buried with, but people stole them so it was sealed. Blerry swines.”
I was interested. I asked gogo a few more questions about the site and why she would go all the way there just to brew beer. She explained that it was a sacred site, with powerful ancestral energies.
“You know what, this place is like that,” Tembi added. “When I went to Njelele I actually saw a mermaid.”
Bongi rolled her eyes.
“Is there a river in Njelele?” I asked, intrigued.
“No. There’s a pool of water inside a cave. Actually I know this guy who was taken by a mermaid when he went there. Apparently, they took him to the spirit world, that’s where he was initiated. He’s now a powerful healer.”
“Why haven’t you mentioned him before? We should go see him,” said Bongi.
“No, you know what, It’s just that I’ve forgotten his name.”
Bongi giggled incredulously and looked out the window. The rain clouds had gathered. They were dark and heavy, casting an eerie feeling across the landscape. “Gogo it looks like the rain is coming,” Ellis said.
“That’s actually a good sign. It means those in the wind are with us,” replied gogo. She smiled and stretched her out of the car window.
There was a light shower by the time we turned into a rural homestead. It was dark, the kind pitch black you can only find in the villages. I was exhausted from the ride but relieved we had finally arrived. We were greeted in the compound by an old, thin woman who resembled gogo. Two or three teenage girls were walking from house to house with pots and pans.
“We are here,” said gogo “This is home.”
The homestead was large. There were three mud huts with thatched roofs and one large brick house with an asbestos roof. Gogo introduced the rake-thin woman as her female uncle MaNyathi. She welcomed us warmly but looked us over with curious, sceptical eyes. “Are these the ones you have brought for the water ceremony?” she asked. Gogo nodded.
“These city people?” looking unconvinced. Gogo laughed deeply, throwing her head back, her wig blowing in the night air. “But I always bring city people.”
“Amakhiwa lawa?” she said, waving her hand up and down at us. We laughed and made our way into the brick house.
We entered a sparsely furnished living room. There were two wooden chairs and reed mats. Bongi, Tembi and I sat legs outstretched on one of the reed mats. Gogo perched herself on the chair letting out a deep, loud sigh. She reached for the cartoon of beer we had brought with us and ripped it open, took a long swig out of a can, belched, and looking at us mischievously said, “removing the poison” and laughed to herself. We all took a can each and started drinking.
After some time, Gogo began a Ndebele song about a son longing for his father. There was something beautifully eerie about the song. It made me think of my father, whom I had last spoken to the previous week after months of cold silence. We needed money to organise this trip and Bongi had convinced me to call him. I regretted it as soon as he picked up. “Well, well look who it is. I’m sure you need money.” He said.
“Hi, dad. How have you been?’’ I said peevishly.
“I’m fine, I have to be since it’s like a person didn’t give birth in this world.”
I took a deep breath.
“So, I need your help. We’ve umm run out of food,” I said the lie in one mouthful.
I heard him sigh on the other end. “Is this what you left London for?” He asked. I did not respond.
“What kind of a man are you anyway? You can’t find a job because you’re fucking lazy!” I had known the onslaught was coming but his words cut deep.
“I don’t even identify as a man anymore but whatever,” I muttered under my breath.
“What?” He asked,
“Nothing,” I said, “Look, can you give us the money or not?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He hung up. Five minutes later there was a notification on my phone.
Darius Moyo has sent you $300 USD.
Please come and pick your cash up at any of our branches.
Don’t forget to bring your ID!
Tears welled up in my eyes, shame settled in my belly. Bongi had a triumphant smile on her face.
Gogo suddenly leapt up from her chair and began dancing. She stomped her feet on the ground and twisted her hips in time with the song. Our voices rose, becoming animated encouraged by gogo’s movements. Tembi leapt up as well, copying gogo’s movements. They sang and laughed joyfully. Bongi sang in-between the huge gulps of beer she was downing.
I watched them dance and sing. An overwhelming feeling of sadness washed over me. An image of Tate, my ex-boyfriend, flashed in my mind. I missed him terribly. We had broken up the day I left London. He had been under the assumption that I was going back home for a short trip.
“The fuck you mean you might not come back?”
“It’s my visa Tate, I don’t make the rules.”
“And you waited all this time to tell me? We could’ve fixed this.”
“I don’t know, we could’ve gotten married innit?”
“Oh come on Tate. I don’t wanna marry you.” I caught myself after the words had spilled out of my mouth. Tate raised his eyebrows, shiny studs shimmering on his ear lobes.
“Oh is it?” He said, “Well, have a nice journey. And fuck you, babe”
I was wounded. He turned around and walked away. Not to be outdone I shouted after him “We wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway. You’re a stupid fuckboy!” He stopped and turned. Tears were running down his eyes. He turned again and walked away. I called and texted profusely in the months that followed. He ignored all my calls and blocked my texts.
Tears started flowing down my eyes at the memory of Tate. That and the heady feeling of intoxication made my head spin. My vision grew hazy. Bongi crawled over to me. “Hey, you ok?” I barely heard her. Gogo stopped her dancing momentarily “Leave him,” she said “It’s the grandmothers, they are here.” I started sneezing intensely. Gogo’s singing and dancing grew more and more ferocious. Tembi and MaNyathi had joined the frenzy. I could barely see what was going on.
Gogo started screaming. She rolled around on the floor, her clothes gathering dust. Her wig flew off, exposing a patchy hairline and ropes of cornrowed hair. I watched her through narrowed eyes, trying my best to focus. She started roaring deeply and got on all fours as though she were a lion. Bongi and the others got on their knees and began clapping their hands, heads bowed.
“ Welcome ancient one,” the chorus of voices said.
“We are here, ancient one, speak to us.”
Gogo sat back on the floor. Her face had turned hard and it shimmered as though it were made of bronze. Her eyes were ablaze. I sat up, my head spinning, and looked directly into them. There was something in there that wasn’t gogo. It was terrible and brilliant all at once. I froze, terrified but unable to avert my eyes. Then she spoke. Her voice was no longer light and youthful. It was deep and hoarse.
“You fail to bring a chair even when an ancient one is here?” MaNyathi quickly scrambled up and went into a room adjoining the living room. She returned with a very small unduthu chair. Gogo perched on it.
“I see you have called us here. We have heard you young ones. We are here.” She said, MaNyathi ululated joyfully.
“Help us ancient one, your children are here, they need your help.” MaNyathi pleaded.
“Have I not said we have come? Am I not Zanenkosi?”
“You are, ancient one!” Bongi and Tembi said, their voices rising to near screams.
“We will go to the water to prepare a way for you. Do not be afraid of what you might see there.”
“We are thankful khulu,” they all said in high pitched voices. Gogo roared again and collapsed out of the chair to the floor.
I closed my eyes, the heaviness returning in dense waves. Somebody started a song and a drum was brought out to accompany it. Everyone sang with such ferocity, it felt as though the sky would rapture. I felt the drum’s beat in my bones. The song swirled in the air and cast spells into the room. I felt like I was soaring through the sky at lightning speed. I stood up quite suddenly and began dancing. My eyes were closed but I could feel everyone around me. We danced as though we had one body, one mind. Our feet stomped the ground and our hands caught the wind only to release it in loud claps. We moved to songs from an ancient world. A knot released in my chest and the entire space was filled with wonder.
I do not know exactly how long we danced but when I came to, it was 3am. I sat there dazed, quietly watching as everyone shuffled about packing things into plastic bags. It was time. I stood up and slid on my shoes. We walked out into the darkness.
The river ran out back between large boulders, rocks, and dense trees. We walked over kopjes that lay on the ground wet and slippery with rainwater. We navigated muddy pathways, skirted past thorn bushes and large tree roots protruding from the ground. When we got to the entrance of the pathway that led to the river, gogo stopped us.
“We have to ask the ancestors to open the way.” We knelt on the muddy ground and she sprinkled black snuff, speaking in low tones. When she was done we cupped our hands and clapped. Bongi and Tembi ululated.
We continued to the river and stopped on the slippery kopje edge. Ellis told us to take our shoes off as gogo knelt on the bank and sprinkled more snuff into the river. She stood up, knees buckling from the strain. With her blue dress shimmering in darkness, she turned to us and said, “Don’t be afraid of what you see. The ancestors are here.” She entered the water wading beautifully—a child in its arms. She called Bongi into the water. Bongi walked in, head held high, face twisted in mock confidence even though I could tell she was terrified. Gogo held her by the back of her head and dipped her into the water. She brought her head back up and slammed it back in. She repeated this several times. Bongi was heaving, her breaths short and sharp. Gogo rolled her body around in the water. Her tightly wrapped braids came loose and poured over her face. When she stood upright a long snake was slithering on her shoulders. Tembi screamed. Bongi noticed the snake and froze, her eyes wide with shock. I backed away slightly terrified at the sight.
“Don’t be afraid,” said gogo. “The great snakes are here.” She began chanting a praise poem. The snake moved its head to the rhythm of the poem and slid off Bongi’s shoulders. Gogo led Bongi out of the water. Bongi was shaking with an intensity I had never seen before. She looked like an exaggerated cartoon. I held my hand over my mouth and, despite myself, began to laugh.
Gogo called me in next. Terror immobilized me. I stopped giggling. I could not move. She looked me straight in the eyes and said “move.” I began moving forward almost in a daze, my body involuntarily propelling itself forward. I entered the water and gogo proceeded to dunk and roll me as she had done to Bongi. As she rolled me around something slippery wrapped itself around my body. Terror seized me. In a panic, I opened my mouth and my lungs filled with water. I coughed and spluttered. When I stood upright I saw the snake unwrapping itself off of me. It swam away. Gogo led me out to the bank and Ellis, ever efficient, wrapped a sheet around me. I sat on the bank and watched Tembi go in.
When we finished gogo swam around in the water by herself, diving into the deeper parts and reemerging, head bobbing like a dolphin. She seemed like a different creature altogether. She lay on her back on the surface of the river, eyes staring at the dark sky, lost. Ellis entered the river then and whispered to her that it was time to go. She led gogo out of the water. We gathered our things together and silently walked back to the house.
We left the next afternoon. When we returned to the house, Bongi, Tembi, and I disappeared into one of the rooms where we slept the whole morning on reed mats. The sun was blazing hot when I woke up. I was alone in the room and my neck spasmed in pain. I walked to the kitchen where I found everyone sitting on a long clay bench that was attached to the wall of the room. They were eating. I took a plate and joined them. We dug into the sadza and meaty chicken we had brought with us. Gogo appeared at the door with a hoe and axe in her hands.
“I had gone to fix the graves of the elders,” she announced.
“They are so blessed hey,” Tembi responded. Gogo joined us and we discussed the events of that morning.
“You were so terrified when you saw that snake chomi,” said Tembi laughing hysterically at Bongi.
“As if you were any braver. You screamed when gogo rolled you around,” We all laughed. Gogo asked the 3 of us to join her in the brick house living room. She burnt sage with other herbs and let the smoke swirl around our bodies, “To cleanse your auras,” she explained.
We loaded our things into the car. The driver, who had disappeared the previous night, had suddenly reappeared when it was time to leave. MaNyathi gave us all tight hugs. She made us promise we would return soon to “see an old woman before she dies shuwa.” We drove off as rain clouds began to gather in the sky. It started raining when we turned into the dusty main road.
“Look at that,” gogo said, hand-stretched out of the car window. “We brought the rain.” I believed her.