When I was a child, my most favorite bedtime treat was a story told by you. Not read from a book, but “from your lips,” as I used to beg. Possessed of prodigious imagination, you spooled out great fantastical narratives, the thread continuing over successive nights. Sweeping space and time into your nimble grasp, you wove together sights from our walks through the sludge of Washington, DC winters and the swamp of its summers, people we saw on the bus, my imaginary brother Michael (named after the King of Pop, naturally), historical events, and even the occasional hobbit. I was captivated by these bedtime moments, and by you, and never so much as when the stories were true. Even then I knew: without your stories, I had no story.
In your words, another earlier world was given weight and dimension, made real. The world into which you were born a third-class citizen, a girl child of the Black majority violently swept aside and under the boot of Cecil John Rhodes and his grasping descendants. Cecil John Rhodes: forerunner to luminaries Ian Smith and P.W. Botha, creator of the two Rhodesias, august personage now more associated with prestigious scholarships to tony English universities than his quoted remark “I prefer land to niggers.”1 That anyone, at any point, could have seen you and known you and yet clearly not known you, as proven by their slights, disparagement, or denigration, was, and remains, inconceivable. Often, I would interrupt with exclamations of disbelief and indignation, staggered at the world and its inhabitants. I wondered about your past and how you navigated it. I wondered what you looked like, what your days were like, how you imagined and realized this future.
In my mind’s eye, I carry an image of you as a child. You live in Zvipani Township, a small village in Mashonaland West, a province in the northern region of Southern Rhodesia. You have two siblings; soon, you will have three. You are the brainy one. “This one? See this head? She has brains!” your father shouts to anyone who will listen, much to your embarrassment. You are small and thin, with a shy smile and a wide gap between your two front teeth. Your hair is kept short, shorn neatly to the skull, with only the tiniest halo of tight black curls. You like to read and to daydream and to swim in the nearby rivers, though that is strictly forbidden lest you catch bilharzia. Your younger brother is your favorite sibling. He, who will run away while still a teenager to join the Chimurenga and fight for liberation. You find the chores you are expected to do—carrying heavy buckets of water back from the well, pounding maize in a mortar and pestle, stirring large steaming cauldrons over an open flame, sweeping the packed mud floors of the huts in your family’s compound—not so much difficult as relentlessly and unbelievably dull. Your mind wanders. In 1960, at the age of seven, you are sent with your older sister to Usher, a boarding school run strictly and unbendingly by Scottish nuns sent over to curb the colonies and produce good, obedient half-citizens. Until then, you live in Zvipani, the introverted and bookish second-born child of a Salvation Army minister who believes in hygiene, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the education of women.
At some point, while you are either at Usher or St. Ignatius—the more progressive co-ed secondary school you later attend—a fire breaks out at home. Many precious and irreplaceable things are lost, including family photographs. There were very few to start with, but now there are none. It is a loss whose parameters cannot be fully appreciated until the birth of the next generation. I have never seen an image of you as a child, as a teenager. Proof that you did not spring fully formed from your father’s brow like some Athena of the veldt exists only in memory and anecdote. I have never seen you as you were then.
And yet. I visualize you through the stories you tell, filling in details omitted or forgotten with my own. These stories become my stories, the backbone behind my will, the steel and flash of my desire. I can only seem to make sense of myself in the context of my pasts, lived and otherwise. Without these pasts, I do not exist in any sense of that word. This is not a story of assimilation, or climbing the ladder of success, or even of how Zimbabwe was wrested from Southern Rhodesia. It is a story of your imagination, of your vision, of your ferocity, and where they carried us.
- Matthew Sweet, “Cecil Rhodes: A Bad Man in Africa,” The Independent, 16 March 2002.
Thank you to Robin D. G. Kelley for his freedom dreams, and to you for yours. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.