Our forgetting is also
our home, and why
we never left the old country.
— Gabeba Baderoon, “Promised Land”
An old black-and-white portrait of him hung in our living room. His slanted signature marked the books on our shelves. And once a month, cousin T. and I walked my grandmother, Agnes, to the post office to collect his pension. Until the checks stopped coming in the late nineties—by then, all the money had been stolen by officials—she’d also get a monthly sum from the War Victims Compensation Fund. Like her husband, who she never mentioned, Agnes had been a schoolteacher. She’d take us to the library on our way home from the post office. The books we read depicted suburban, white childhoods, full of ease.
We lived on a quiet street in a residential neighborhood called Hatfield, in the south of Harare. It had been laid out as a whites-only suburb in 1920. Six decades later, as the era of settler colonialism drew to a close, droves of white families sold their houses on the cheap and left the country. My grandmother, with the help of her children, purchased one of those properties on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, moving there from Farm 61, a home she shared with her husband in Musengezi, an erstwhile “native purchase area.” She never returned to Farm 61, though it was hardly an hour’s drive away. Or rather, she only went there to commit the dead to our family graveyard. In my lifetime I saw her bury her remaining two sons, a daughter who’d died in a psychiatric facility, and a nephew who’d hanged himself on the farm in 2008. The police took four hours to arrive and cut Cousin P. down. His father stood by him that whole time, in the rain, among the pines and gum trees. But that, as the saying goes, is a story for a different time.
Bones in the Desert
The war against Rhodesia began tentatively, with the killing of a white factory foreman, Pieter Johannes Andries Oberholzer. Driving home with his family one evening in July 1964, he was ambushed by the Crocodile Gang, a five-member command unit aligned with the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). In the ensuing manhunt, the Crocodile Gang’s members fled to Zambia and Mozambique, the unit disbanding. Their attack “came as an inevitable climax to an atmosphere of increasing repression on the part of the whites and an increasing hostility on the part of the blacks,” writes the scholar Michael Raeburn. A year later, Ian Smith signed the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), severing all ties with the United Kingdom, which planned to oversee the colony’s transition to a multiracial democracy. UDI set the rogue settler state, renamed Rhodesia, on an irreversible path toward war. In her memoir, Reliving the Second Chimurenga, Fay Chung recollects the violence and protests that erupted in 1965:
Our school in Harare township was soon surrounded by violence. White- and Asian-owned shops around us were burnt down to black hulks. Churches and schools were attacked. Harare township now resembled a city of ruins. The townships had become no-go areas, with violence not only against other races, but also against blacks, as gangs of youths went around demanding party cards.
The second salvo against the regime came in April 1966, with the day-long Battle of Sinoia. Seven insurgents from ZANU’s armed wing, who’d infiltrated back into the country from Zambia, were gunned down by Rhodesian helicopters and the British South Africa Police. The Second Chimurenga, or “revolutionary struggle,” as it came to be known, would claim more than twenty thousand lives. It lasted until the Lancaster House Agreement was signed in December 1979, ushering in Zimbabwe’s independence.
My grandmother recalls that skeletons littered the countryside during the wartime. “Go and tell my family that this is what has happened to me,” the bones would rise to testify to passers-by. “Kwezo ntsuku kunabantu abanintsi abasuka emakhayeni abo bengavalelisanga.” Hundreds of young men and women left to shore up the war effort without saying goodbye properly, in the ritual sense. Their restless souls, buried in unmarked graves, cried out to be returned.
My grandfather was among those buried in the wild, like an animal slaughtered away from the herd. He was abducted from Farm 61 in September 1979 and never seen again. Something of that experience remained incommunicable until the day Agnes died, forty years later. This was in keeping with her reticence about the conflict, whose details she hardly discussed.
“Go and tell my family that this is what has happened to me,” the bones would rise to testify to passersby.
It would be easy to reach for familiar explanations, to admit that trauma undoes language and memory. But I see something deeper and more willed in my grandmother’s silence. “To leave war behind,” Ryszard Kapuscinski writes in his essay, “When There Is Talk of 1945,” “meant to internally cleanse oneself, first and foremost to cleanse oneself of hatred.” It is an arduous, lifelong effort, and I don’t know if my grandmother succeeded. She named my cousin, the first of her grandchildren born after independence, Nokuthula, “the one who brings peace.” It’s a gesture that means more to me when I look back on it now. We came of age under a regime obsessed with the rhetoric of war. The eight o’clock news bulletin and the state-owned broadsheets obsessively addressed ruling officials as “comrades.” Opposition party members were traitors or “counterrevolutionaries”—a term used to legitimize torture, executions, and all manner of violence. Even after Robert Mugabe was deposed in a military coup in 2017, his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa—an ex-combatant trained in China—began his first press conference with the call: Pasi nemhandu! Down with the traitors.
Such language keeps alive a war that has been over for four decades. Against it, I see my grandmother’s silence as a way of reclaiming a peaceful life for herself—and for us.
A People’s War Against the People
The guerrilla war was fought by two rival liberationist movements, which splintered along ethnic lines. The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, drew its cadre from the Ndebele-speaking minority; ZANU, which Robert Mugabe took over in the mid-1970s, was backed by the Shona-speaking majority. Each movement had a military wing. ZAPU’s training camps were mainly across the border, where they plotted a Ché-style insurgency with the help of the Soviet Union. ZANU’s leaders took up Mao’s model of People’s War, for which they received military assistance from the Chinese Communist Party.
Josiah Tongogara, the commander of ZANU’s military wing, was trained at Nanjing Military Academy. He played a pivotal role in reshaping the army’s struggle along Maoist lines, after the hit-and-run tactics of the late sixties had proved flailing and costly. (In 1968 alone 160 fighters were killed.) “Tongogara’s Maoist approach transformed ZANU’s prospects during the 1970s,” Julia Lovell writes in her recent book, Maoism: A Global History. So much so that “by the time Ian Smith’s government agreed to negotiate in 1979, ZANU was in control of two-thirds of rural Southern Rhodesia.”
The martyrs of the guerrilla war are commemorated at a national monument in Harare known as the Heroes Acre, where a bronze statue depicts three fighters standing upright, holding a flagpole. But thousands of black civilians were also executed during the war, on the sound Maoist principle that internal enemies must be eliminated—and these victims remain un-mourned by any monument. “[Tongogara] saw issues in black and white,” writes Chung. “And believed that those who opposed or betrayed the liberation struggle for Zimbabwe deserved to be executed, and he did not flinch from playing the role of executioner.” Among the dead was my grandfather, Patrick Simon Kona.
The fraternal squabbling between ZAPU and ZANU laid the groundwork for the post-independence massacres in Matabeleland and in the Midlands. The vote of the Shona-speaking majority in the February 1980 elections propelled Mugabe into the prime minister’s office. Once in power, he deployed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade infantry to crush Nkomo and ZAPU. Some twenty thousand Ndebele speakers were killed in the military operation, known as Gukurahundi (“the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). The pogroms ceased only with the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987, which amalgamated the two parties into one, ZANU-PF.
My generation was taught nothing about the massacres, which Mugabe dismissed as a “moment of madness.” We struggled to make sense of the ambient, hushed-up violence that lingered on long after the war. I was five years old when the man who tended my grandmother’s garden disappeared. Cosmas lived in the boysky at the back of our house—a single room with running water and no electricity. He’d gone out on a Friday night with his girlfriend, a tall, thin woman whose name I’ve now forgotten. They were by the church when three men pulled up in a Nissan Sunny and snatched him.
The vehicle belonged to a man who had recently moved into our neighborhood. It was known that he worked for the Central Intelligence Organization, Mugabe’s secret police. A training base for new recruits had also been set up nearby, in a compound secluded behind high walls and barbed wire. Our neighborhood was soon crawling with men in cheap suits and clean-shaven heads. We lived side by side, as friends and neighbors, as victims and executioners.
Sometime later, a passerby had come across Cosmas’s body in a ditch, near the site of his abduction. I asked my mother whether they brought charges against the CIO man. Cosmas’s girlfriend “really did try to open a case at the Hatfield police station,” my mother said. “But they said she was drunk and didn’t know what she was talking about. She’d seen the wrong car.”
My grandparents were descendants of Xhosa-speaking clans from the eastern parts of South Africa. In 1890, their forebears had traveled as petty laborers attached to the Pioneer Column, the band of mercenaries gathered by Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company for their conquest of Mashonaland, which would become the self-governing colony Southern Rhodesia in 1923. Each of the white mercenaries were rewarded with three thousand acres of land and fifteen mining claims. For their part, the laborers were allotted a portion of land in Mbembesi, as a tainted reward for complicity. This is where my grandparents met in the late thirties. Patrick was twenty-six and Agnes was twenty when they married in 1941. By then they were both working as schoolteachers, though my grandmother soon quit to raise the children.
Patrick’s father had been a lay preacher and an ox-wagon driver. In the early 1930s, he moved further north, purchasing a parcel of land in Musengezi, Farm 61. It’s the place my grandparents considered home, and where they lived out much of wartime. The two letters from her father still in my mother’s possession were written from Farm 61. The first is dated July 4, 1979. My mother was then thirty-three years old, employed as a social worker in Harare. The letter’s calm opening, “my dearest daughter,” quickly surrenders to a more ominous tone. “I’ve sent her twenty dollars [my Aunt Rose, then still in high school] and she should never come home, including yourself. Things are worse . . . I am about to desert home. . . . Will tell you as the situation unfolds.”
By then, the war was edging toward its endgame. Guerrillas were everywhere, moving among the people like fish in the sea. “Following Mao’s strategy of mass mobilization and political education,” writes Lovell, “ZANU educated the black rural majority about their grievances against white rule.” In all-night vigils known as Pungwes, the peasantry were given lightning lessons on the revolution—and their role in it. To drive the point home, alleged sellouts and traitors were to be beaten or executed publicly, as were those simply deemed “uncooperative.” This is what my grandfather meant by “things are worse.”
My generation was taught nothing about the massacres, which Mugabe dismissed as a “moment of madness.” We struggled to make sense of the ambient, hushed-up violence that lingered on long after the war.
For reasons that remain unclear, my grandfather did not leave right away. I suppose, even in a time of war, it would have felt like a betrayal of his duty as the eldest son, leaving the graves of his father and his kin unattended. His second letter, dated three weeks later, is tinged with foreboding. “My dearest daughter,” he begins, “terrible this way.” Again he promises to leave: “I’m about to come home. Pray for me and the whole family. Educate Mado [my Aunt Rose] and Sheila [another aunt, then still in school] in the event of death.” There are other housekeeping instructions but even now, I’m struck by the severity of that phrase: My dearest daughter, terrible this way.
After delaying another few months, my grandparents finally prepared to leave in September 1979. On the fourteenth, my mother awaited their arrival at a bus stop on the outskirts of the capital, then known as Salisbury. The war was at its height, and buses on the road were few. She kept waiting as long-distance buses pulled in and out of the terminal. “Other people I could recognize disembarked, and we exchanged greetings,” she tells me. “I told them I’m waiting for my mother and father. But no one had seen them.”
Later that night, my mother received a phone call from M., a cousin in Highfield. Aunt M. was with my grandmother and Pilani, another of her grandchildren she’d been looking after. That morning men had arrived at Farm 61 and abducted Patrick. Agnes escaped with the baby to a neighboring farm, and then hitchhiked from there to Harare with a neighbor. “They were beating him,” Agnes told my mother, sobbing over the phone. “I don’t know what’s happened to him now.”
Day after day, my mother returned to the bus stop. One afternoon she spotted a neighbor from Farm 61, Mrs. H., and tried to make some inquiries. “Mrs. H.?” Agnes explained, when my mother told this to her. “Mrs. H!? Some of her relatives were in that group of young men who came and said we’re looking for Mr. Kona.” After that, my mother no longer went to the bus stop.
Days later, someone found my grandfather’s white Austin Westminster abandoned on the shoulder of the road not far from the farm. The police waited six weeks, the apportioned time, before declaring him dead. Patrick’s remains were eventually found (allegedly) and hastily buried by members of the community on the farm in my grandmother’s absence. My grandmother’s neighbors claimed to have recognized him by his tobacco-stained teeth and the bullet wound.
My mother suspects that Patrick was executed by guerrillas. “After taking someone publicly like that you can’t risk being seen,” she tells me. “I’m sure they must have just shot him.” I asked my mother how Agnes had coped during those weeks. “She was devastated,” my mother said. “She didn’t trust anybody at all. That’s why she never went back because she said she really doesn’t want to know, because the people she trusted did this to them. She couldn’t understand who or why, so she didn’t want to go back.”
Dictionary of Lost Words
My grandmother died on October 31, 2019, three weeks before her ninety-eighth birthday. We buried her on the farm, next to Patrick’s grave. I hadn’t been as close to her those final years, since I moved to Cape Town with my mother in 2004, fifteen hundred miles away from Harare. Living in South Africa, I no longer felt at home in the creole we grew up speaking—a mixture of Xhosa, Ndebele, Shona, and English. During our stilted weekly conversations, I’d add new entries to my growing dictionary of lost words.
Suddenly I felt myself to be one of those travelers besieged by the bones of the dead. I was overcome by the need to trace the silences she kept.
Not long after her death, my grandmother appeared to me in a dream in which she couldn’t speak, or I couldn’t hear her. Suddenly I felt myself to be one of those travelers besieged by the bones of the dead. I was overcome by the need to trace the silences she kept. Kwezo ntsuku kunabantu abanintsi abasuka emakhayeni abo bengavalelisanga.
And so I began recording conversations with my mother, Thenjiwe, who is now seventy-three years old. We would sit together in the early afternoons, after she’d returned from dialysis treatment at the hospital. There were things I had to ask about—the two letters stored in a brown attaché briefcase; Agnes and Patrick’s political views—and others that I elected to leave aside. We did not speak about her brief marriage to my father, who I’ve never met; or the sudden death of my Uncle E., who’d been like a surrogate father to Cousin T. and me. I was there when the hospital called the morning of my uncle’s death. The nurse led us into his room, the din and whir of the machines that had kept the patient alive now silent. Uncle E. looked like he was snoring, his mouth agape. My mother shouted at him to close his mouth. She then put her hands on his face, pleading that he do this. Finally, she relented. “We’ll take you home,” she said. “We’ll take you home.”
In my favorite photograph of my grandmother, she is standing by the front entrance of our home in Hatfield. Behind her is a small hedge of bougainvillea. The sky overhead is a deep, cloudless blue. I’ll never be able to tell you if she was as happy as Cousin T. and I were there. But what she did tell us was that this was ours. Not only the place but the time too.