In this award winning short story, Bongani Ncube-Zikhali effortlessly weaves a moving tale of young love, jacaranda blossoms and the great migration, set at the end of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary era.
When I left Bulawayo five years ago, it was at the height of the jacaranda season; with the purple flowers carpeting every avenue of the city in their annual celebration of life. It was a picture I carried with me every day of my sojourn in Europe; the image of the town of my birth that my heart treasured.
Even then, the dark scars were apparent. I remember electricity used to go off once every few days, and the newspapers were screaming headlines about soon to be empty dams. A few months before that, the country had run out of its own currency and every bank used to have people queuing outside for a shot at withdrawing their hard earned cash.
But all I can remember are those jacarandas and the purple blossoms covering almost every available inch of free tarmac on the avenues of downtown Bulawayo, the wind playing tag with them before they came down to be squashed by passing cars, their forms seeming to be painted onto the surface of the road.
Now I am back, running back to a home I had run away from. The prodigal son come to beg forgiveness from my fatherland, or was it the other way round, was I the one who had to forgive this land for failing me? For failing to provide my basic needs, my basic wants, for dying in my arms when I needed it most. I do not know. The bus speeds through the dark night, the sounds of the other passengers talking drowned out by the French music in my earphones; I have not talked to anyone of them throughout the entire journey. Preferring instead to sit in silence, and consider what it is I am running to and where I am running from.
I am running into the arms of a woman I have never met, running from the stress of a high pressure job in Paris, running to a country which I had run away from because some need in me called out, whispered in my very dreams, “Come home”. I admit freely, five years is a bit much to spend without visiting family even once, five years of speaking a foreign language and living in a land where the darkness of my skin is a stark reminder to the entire world that I am not one of them, that my home is the one they see on television, where people are dying of malaria or some war is raging. Because the rest of the world seems to think Africa is one big country, one big hole of poverty and despair.
And for a while I had despaired; despaired of ever fitting into Parisian society, my English accent always managing to burst through my French. Something which in Zimbabwe had elevated me to the heights of a ‘salad’, in France lowered me to the depths of ‘another one of those Anglophones’. My small apartment in the Latin Quarter was a dreary affair, nothing compared to the family home in Parklands. But even at my lowest I treasured the freedom, treasured the fact that I was living in the land of the green pasture, glad that I got to read the headlines and not be a part of them:
“Cholera Outbreak In Zimbabwe”, “Shops Empty In Zim Capital”, “Power Cuts Intensify”.
But always that image of my home remained in my mind, called out to me in my dreams. The picture of Jacaranda blossoms floating down onto the car as we drove on our way from church, of the fountain at Centenary Park shooting jets of water into the air as if daring the heavens with a display of their majesty. The sound of laughter with my friends as we wandered aimlessly through town on the weekend. Images of a past gone by, morning memories of forgotten dreams. Memories that I try to search for as the bus arrives in the City of Kings from Johannesburg. It’s been sixteen hours and not for the first time, I wish I could have afforded the money to fly all the way. But such is life; regret is for those who have the luxury of living in the past.
I can make out the dark shapes of buildings as the bus passes through the dead of night into the city centre. The moon hangs silently in the sky, the only source of light as most of the street lamps are dead; I had been warned but the reality still surprises me. The first hint that my portrait of this half remembered place might not be accurate anymore; that the years have not been kind. We stop at the bus station and collective sighs of relief fill the place as people stand up to leave. I am slower than most, I am in no rush to leave. I know that no one is waiting for me outside, that only the still night air will welcome me home.
My impulsive side had wanted to tell her that I was coming. To mention it in our daily Facebook chats that I was finally going to meet her in the flesh. But I had kept quiet and never breathed a word about it. I wanted to surprise her. Wanted us to meet at some other place other than the dingy bus corner, my clothes all drenched in sweat and my backside sore from sitting in a chair for half a day. I had seen it over and over again in my fantasies, our first meeting after two solid years of daily emails. I had browsed all her pictures over and over again so I knew what she looked like but still I yearned to sit across the table from her when I finally asked her to be my girlfriend, this time for real.
Broken bonds, scattered siblings
The taxi driver tries to strike up a conversation but my curt responses soon lead him to the conclusion that silence is a better option. I am surprised at how much I had been affected by the scene of families reunited outside the bus. I stood alone, bags in tow as I searched for a taxi. My parents are both living in Australia and my sister is working as a nurse in the United States. I had been the first one to lead what soon became an exodus. I can easily come up with an aunt, uncle or cousin in each of the G8 countries. The end result is that my return is witnessed by no one, welcomed by no one.
The house is nestled in dark shadows when I arrive. I ask the driver to hoot, and I pay as we wait for someone to arrive. I thank him,and get out of the car when I see someone appear from the cottage at the back of the yard. The headlights of the retreating taxi bathe it in brilliant light; illuminating, for a second, recollections of my childhood in this building and then just as quickly they are gone, captured by the shadows that hide from the light of the moon. I can hear sleep in his voice as he calls out for me to identify myself. I call out my name and he advances quickly to open the gate. I ask for the keys to the main house and take my leave; sleep awaits me.
My dreams that night are many and confused. I am running through the maze of buildings that crowd La Defence in Paris when suddenly the road widens and I am running through a street lined with purple blossoms. There are street lights scattered all along the road and I have to jump over them, careful not to step onto them lest they burst into light. I am sure that must be a bad thing. Then suddenly I can hear her calling my name. She is standing underneath a tree, smiling at me and holding something in her hand. I walk up to her and call her name. Nandi. She opens her hand and there is a Euro in her palm. I look up at her and the blossoms start raining on us. I wake up in a sweat to find that morning has broken.
There is no electricity and I swear silently to myself. The water is bitingly cold and I have to make do with washing my face. The fridge is empty, and the whole house seems to be empty of life as well. I had given the previous tenants notice months before I arrived and it shows; there are no traces of their past life anywhere. But neither are they traces of my past life. The wall which used to embrace a bookshelf is bare and the carpet is a completely different colour. What little furniture that belongs to us that remains behind is scattered all over the place in different positions, testament of lives that have passed by in my absence. I pick up the phone and call her.
She is speechless when she hears my voice so crisp and loud, not separated by the vast reaches of an ocean and a continent. “I love you”, I tell her. She demands I say it in French; Je t’aime. I frown as I put down the phone, France is my past life and yet for her it is a huge part of what she sees in me. The Euro in her hand in my dream comes to mind and I sigh silently. I am being paranoid, I decide, grumpy because of the absence of electricity and my now growling stomach. I put on my earphones and choose a very English song as I walk out of the house.
A foreigner on home turf
The drive to town is a revelation. Potholes the sizes of craters fill the avenues and at one point the road has been completely removed to make way for a new one, yet the new one seems no nearer to appearing than the Second coming. We pay in rands or dollars, the bargaining over which currency to give change in fascinates me and I make a mental note to always carry loose money. How things have changed. I almost feel like a foreigner in my own land, but it feels good to hear everyone talking in Ndebele, I am one of them and nothing can change that. I feel happy to be home.
I wait in the interior of the little restaurant. All around me people are chatting and dining, the clink of forks against plates a counterpoint to the soft music that play from the hidden speakers in the ceiling. I look out of the window at the passing flow of the world and beyond that the first buds of the jacarandas springing to life in the trees. I am nervous; I can’t help but analyse this concept of a relationship started online. Now is the moment of truth, the moment I see whether those pixels on the computer screen come to life as a living breathing, lovable person. Whether those endearments we dedicated to each other meant more than the noise of the keyboard as we typed them in, as we typed them into each other’s hearts.
I spot her as she walks into the restaurant. Her dress is purple and long. Her hair is cropped short, her face with strong cheekbones and her lips full. She looks around once then spots me. I stand up as she arrives. Her voice carries the tone of a question as she says my name, “Jabulani?”
I smile and embrace her. “Welcome home,” she whispers in my ear.
Behind her, through the glass, almost too small to be noticed; a purple blossom falls gently to the ground.
© Bongani Ncube-Zikhali
The story ”Purple”‘ was awarded the Yvonne Vera (Intwasa) Prize.
Bongani Ncube-Zikhali is a student at the University of Paris VI (UPMC Sorbonne) where he studies the French, Computer Science and their wine. He has lived in Johannesburg, Geneva, Lyon, Paris and Tlemcen, but Bulawayo remains his home.
His ramblings can be found on his blog http://echoes-online.blogspot.fr/ or on twitter @zikhali110