In this installment of his weekend series “Stories from Dangamvura”, Chris Kabwato introduces us to Dangamvura and the kaleidoscope of characters that made it vibrant, tales with which many across Zimbabwean townships can relate.
Sitting down to write this article, it struck me that I had made too many assumptions about readers and their knowledge of Dangamvura Township. Allow me to take you back a little and describe the place of my birth and childhood.
In the process, I hope to give back a semblance of dignity to those whose names do not feature anywhere on the internet. Whilst they may not be in textbooks, they lived, breathed and influenced our little lives in different ways.
Dangamvura Township was opened up for settlement in 1962. The first houses being known as the T-Section and years later, “ma-Old Houses” in distinction to the new housing areas such as kuma-Two Rooms; Railways; C; Ownership; P; Area 12; Area 13 etc. My maternal grandmother and her family (including my mother) moved into Dangamvura’s house number 38T in 1965 from a white-owned farm in Headlands, just after Halfway House on the Mutare Highway. My grandmother’s home had initially been occupied by a n’anga by the name of Masamba Asiyana.
There were two main striking features of this new township – the hills and the river. Sakubva River was once upon a time a real river. The river drank its water from Odzi River and meandered from the Mutare city centre down through Sakubva Township to Dangamvura onwards to Dora Pindo and Dora Dombo, heading towards Save River where it offloaded its waters.
Sakubva River then was not the dirty and hazardous stream that it is now. The river played a critical role in our township lives – women did laundry on the banks and boys and men fished using nets or even a sack (kukuzva). In the nearby bush – a real bush – was a wide range of fruit such as hubva, mazhanje, matamba, nyii, matohwe, nhengeni, and more.
People fetched firewood from an area called Nyamauru where the sewage works were located. It was also a place where myths and taboos were alive in the air. My aunt, Jane Tambula, recalls how her younger self and her friends Getrude Mpingo, Beauty Mpingo and Winnie Nyeraurombo were once chased by a ghost called Mary and had to abandon their firewood. They never ventured again into that area.
Situated in a valley, Dangamvura is bordered by a range of spectacular hills and mountains such as the baldheaded Sheni in the southwest close to Dora, and Dangamvura to the northeast. When we were kids, the two hills were exploited for quarry and sand. One of the hills, on the way to the rural settlement of Dora Dombo, was part of the Rifle Shooting Range where Rhodesian soldiers practised in the afternoon of every weekday.
So it was into this geographical setting that a colourful cast of characters entered by birth or migration…
Rorenzi as Huckleberry Finn
One part of Sakubva River just after the bridge to Weirmouth was called Mapopoma (waterfall). There was a huge rock and the water fell from a considerable height. We were not allowed to play in this area because a mermaid lay in the waters there – allegedly. The adults used to tell us of how laundry that they put out to dry by the banks of the river sometimes disappeared. Yes, taken away by the mermaid.
It took Lawrence “Rorenzi” Kagonegone to debunk that myth.
Before the great American swimmer Michael Phelps, there was Rorenzi. Wearing his permanent impish grin on that stubborn face of his, he would hurl himself into the air from a rock, summersault and dive into the dark green water and disappear. We would stare at the still water wondering. A few minutes later our Huckleberry Finn would appear way down the river smiling triumphantly and defiantly – blowing out water. If courage was a person…
We dived in tentatively with Rorenzi having opened the way for us.
Alas, for me, the joy would not last long. “Kirisi! Iwe Kirisi!” My grandmother will be calling, and I would have to sneak out of the water, put on my clothes quickly and dash home through the bushes. The dear old woman clearly did not want the mermaid to take away her beloved grandson.
The dog in a basket
Rorenzi was not alone in confronting our fears. Sinoni Tambula, my cousin, was a jolly, smart and sophisticated young man. He was also fearless. One time we had to go and buy tomatoes at a plot in Weirmouth owned by a farmer called Jeffrey. As we walked in through the gate, the farmer’s chihuahua and German Shepherd ran towards us. The chihuahua came for my ankle.
Sinoni brought his basket forward and cupped the German Shepherd’s head. The dog struggled a bit and then backed off. We proceeded with the dogs looking warily at my nonchalant cousin. In his boyhood, Sinoni had joined forces with my uncle Francis and stolen the metal bath basin that my grandmother used for our laundry. They took the basin to the river and tried to turn it into a boat. Legend has it that they were able to row down the river in it and even coined a little song:
I am going to Malawi
I am going to Malawi now
The taming of Kingi the Bully
Where others were fearless, others were in the business of causing fear. We had our fair share of bullies and it always helped to have a brother or an uncle that had a reputation so that no one dared touch you. Kingi was a tall young man with a fist that looked like a double-decker bus. He terrorised people at the disco shows at Dangamvura Beit Hall.
One night, he went on his demented rampage. Out of the dark someone came out and went straight for Kingi. It was the lean and ever-quiet Charlie Madora, and did he mince-meat Kingi. It was a pathetic sight – the Mighty Kingi pleading for mercy from “Mukoma Charlie”. One reign of terror ended that night with a whimper.
Matters of identity, matters of fitness
With a limited range of role models around us, we blew with the wind. At one point we were enamoured of Ticha Mpingo the fitness fanatic with the Afro maintained using Brylcreem Hair Cream. We had a poster on the wall of our dining room of South African 70s singer Richard Jon Smith who claimed to use this magic potion.
It must have worked, because Ticha’s hair’s long Afro looked soft and healthy. He also kept ultra-fit. He had tied a sack of wet river sand and pebbles on the mango tree in his grandmother’s front yard. We took turns to punch and kick that bag, influenced heavily by the kung-fu movies. To this day my darkened knuckles show the effects of the exertions.
The everyday hustlers – Barbara Mafete and Antonio the Mechanic
Whilst we pushed back the frontiers of our fears, the adults were adulting.
Every other day the market women jumped onto a bus of the Rhodesian Omnibus Company, heading for the Sakubva Market (Musika weHuku) to buy fresh vegetables for resale. Amongst them was Mbuya Ngoma, who never put her basket down in the bus but always carried it in her lap. The champion seller was Barbara Tauro who everyone called Barbara Mafete because she made the best voetkoeks. Despite malicious rumours that she put certain unprintable ingredients in her cakes, she always sold out at break time at Rujeko Primary School.
An area towards Sakubva River had been demarcated for mechanics and we called it “ku-Garage”. Here we had two contrasting mechanics. There was the flamboyant Fambeki who had a fleet of 1950s Chevrolets – the ones with the tail fins – and he seemed to glide as he drove one, enjoying the awe he induced in us.
On the other side was Antonio (Baba aKizito), a burly gentle giant who was reputed to have blocked bullets with one hand in a fight with a soldier at Nyamanhindi Hotel. He never wore shoes but his beloved “pata-patas”.
One time, when he was down and out and Gargan Chadder the lawyers-cum-sheriffs had taken all his property, he bought himself a little monkey. He clothed his pet in a blue tracksuit jacket with white-lined sleeves and went everywhere with the monkey perched on his shoulder. One time in the garden at Nyamanhindi Hotel, the monkey sipped Antonio’s Chibuku mug and went into an undignified trance.
The Gloria Flour Man and his samoosas
Shaky “Masamoosa” Saunyama got his nickname trading in something that was uniquely his forte. He made the tastiest samoosas and even sold us burgers with lettuce – I mean lettuce in the township in the late 70s and early 80s?
He packaged his wares in a box, covered them with plastic, and went to bars, the hotel and the hall to sell. In his long black coat, Mudhara Masamoosa would also carry supplies of dagga rolled in a khaki paper which he slid into a patron’s hand surreptitiously. We also called him “Gloria Flour”, for in 1980 to celebrate our independence, he took bags of flour and sewed them into a dungaree. On Independence Day, he came out of his house toyi-toyiing in that multicoloured outfit of his.
The enforcers of invisible authority
Until late 1978, as children, we did not really have a feel of the authority of the Rhodesian regime. The soldiers and the police did not patrol our streets. Instead, what we had were the municipal police, headed by a black Superintendent. We paid water, electricity and rates at the Superintendent’s office. Amongst the municipal workers was an assistant clad in khaki who, armed with a bell, went ringing it across the township shouting in a singsong voice:
(Collect and store water, we are about to close the taps for maintenance).
The seemingly innocent little Eden that was our township was to be shattered when the war came to our doorsteps, the mountains providing the perfect vantage point for rockets to be launched and hit targets. Some of the characters of Dangamvura played a key role in that war, as we shall explore in my next offering.