They Carry the World on their Heads

There aren’t too many reasons to be cheerful in Zimbabwe: dictatorship, inflation, crises, Aids and hunger rule everyday life. How do these people defy the odds’ Their undaunted sense of humour, their fantasy and their patience constantly spur them on to find new ways to survive. Particularly the women. They carry the world on their heads and know: only they who laugh survive. Katharina Morello tells us about these strong women. In her short stories, we meet them, young and old. We see them set out, fail – and then get up again. And we hear them laugh, time and again. Because of course there is also cause for celebration in Zimbabwe: when the big ants fly at night – a delicacy when roasted and salted; when in the midst of vermin a child is born and when after months of waiting, an internet connection holds for 7 minutes and the first email finally arrives.

Published by Peter Hammer Verlag, the book is 150 pages, is bound, costs Fr. 26.50 and is available in all good bookshops.
ISBN 978-3-7795-0176-3


to read

The Old Woman on the Bus

The fear is always present. Even more so in the weeks before the elections. Anything can happen. People are paralysed by fear. This is probably why they tell so many jokes and stories. Nothing is as liberating as laughter. He who laughs, survives.

On one occasion, the nurses at the hospital tell a story about an elderly woman from the neighbouring village. Having been to town to visit relatives, her bus was held up on the way home by young government election aides marauding in the area. The young men and also some girls shout at the passengers, demanding rudely to see proof of the party membership. As such checks are by this time quite usual, everyone always carries their membership card. So it is not surprising that the passengers immediately produce the card requested. Only the old woman continues to rummage in her bag, in vain.

«Hurry up, grandmother,» shouts one of them. «Or do you we have to help you?».

The old woman pulls both her hands out of the bag. Indignantly she holds two cards out and under the ringleader’s nose: A ZANU one, and also the card of their opponents.

«It’s not my fault that my eyes are so bad,» she shouts at him. «Choose the one you need, kushata!*»

*damn it!

«…or else we’ll shut down the hospital!»

Through the thick lenses of her glasses her gaze seems gentle and unfocused, almost dreamy. Yet Sister Chigaba is a determined person, even harsh at times. As head of the hospital, she has her own ideas about how to run it. Once she has made a decision, she won’t be swayed. She’s the boss, and that’s that.

Not everybody likes Sister Chigaba. She often seems aloof. Distant. Unlike many of her colleagues, she isn’t warm or friendly. Some people criticise her, saying she only wants to take advantage of her position. But the nun doesn’t relent. She fights for her ideas, she is tough. Those who can’t accept this should try their luck elsewhere. The doctor from Europe gets on well with Sister Chigaba. He lets her be the boss, and she occasionally lets him have a break.

«If you work until you collapse, you won’t be of any use to us. And this country has some beautiful sights. It would be a shame to miss them,» she says, and she sends him away for a few days.

Then the responsibility is all hers. Malnourished children, malaria, burns, broken bones – she knows what needs to be done. Difficulties arise when operations are called for. Sister Chigaba has to make decisions – refer the patients to another hospital or keep them here? This is the most difficult question of all. In the state hospitals in the cities, things are no better than here in the country. On the contrary. Patients die during the transfer or while waiting in the hallways of the city hospital. There are not enough doctors there either, not enough medicines, not enough of anything.

The task is never easy, but Sister Chigaba is up to it. She is a steady and courageous woman, especially in one certain situation.

It began on Christmas Eve, when a fifty-year old businessman is admitted to the hospital, having been beaten black and blue.

«Who will do such a thing?» the doctor asks, horrified.

The man is a member of the MDC. Mugabe supporters have punished him for his political opinions. But this is only the beginning. The election campaign is coming up. In the following weeks more and more maltreated men and women are admitted. They are immediately noticeable in the wards, as they do not lie in their beds. They crouch by the sides of their beds and lean against the mattresses. They can neither sit nor stand. Their backs, bottoms, thighs and soles are simply a mass of bleeding wounds.

Gradually one hears more about it. The government party has hired young people as election aides. A group of them are based in a nearby town. Officially, the youths are campaigning for the re-election of the president with singing and dancing performances. In reality, however, they track down members of the opposition and search their houses. They stop and check people in the streets, and those unable to prove beyond doubt their support for Mugabe are beaten so viciously that they have to be taken to hospital. Not all of them survive this violent treatment. More and more people disappear, and soon the government party’s identity card is out of print. The only way to now survive these checks unharmed is found in the black market, at exorbitant prices.

The young people are paid for their raids with money, drugs and alcohol – an alluring offer when unemployment rates for the young stand at nearly a hundred percent in this area. There’s a lack of prospects for the young, so why not grab this opportunity? They can have fun together and even get paid for it. After a while though, the supporters of the opposition start to fight back, just as brutally, yet without obvious organisation. They use hoes, axes, knives. In the hospital, enemies now lie side by side and the situation is getting worse every day. The nurses are afraid and worried when working.

«They will all receive the same treatment, no matter which camp they belong to,» orders the head of the hospital. Her heart, however – and this is common knowledge in the village – beats for the opposition.

One day, the local youths beat up a boy who turns out to be the son of a local ZANU politician. A mishap, an error. The boy left his card at home and the comrades didn’t believe him. Now this youth is also kneeling by his hospital bed and people are laughing about it, as if it were a good joke.

However, the ZANU dignitaries from the town do not find the incident funny. The next day they turn up at the hospital gate with a government TV station film crew in tow, arrogantly demanding admission. They film the injured boy by his hospital bed, without sparing a single glance for the other victims of the election campaign.

Afterwards, the television reporter holds a microphone in front of the politician’s son.

«Speak up, boy», he says, «tell us who has injured you so horribly.»

The boy speaks the truth.

«The young people from ZANU.»

Shouts of indignation.

«Impossible!», «He doesn’t know what he’s saying!»

His father snatches the microphone away from him.
«The pain!» he cries. «It has confused my son. See what they have done to him: This is how the MDC is pushing our country to its ruin!»

The closer Election Day draws, the tenser the public mood becomes. One day, all the teachers of a secondary school are admitted to the hospital.

During a break Sister Chigaba repeats what she has heard about it.

A supply teacher recently dismissed from the school for going after the girls has taken revenge on his colleagues. Furious about his dismissal, he has blackened their names at the local government party office. He has maybe even bribed the young people. After all, they are very willing to do anything for beer and money. There is a very fine line between politics and personal revenge, and this line is easily blurred.

One day, at the beginning of March, a little old woman is taken to hospital. Beaten up like all the others before her. This is the last straw for the doctor.

«These boys, won’t they stop at anything? What will they have respect for, if they can beat up a grandmother?»

The nurses remain silent. They live in a dictatorship. War has been waged against their own people. Isn’t this obvious?

Every night, they hear booming drums. Muffled singing. War music. Then, one day, the young people are coming towards the hospital gates. Stout fellows are their leaders. There are girls too, carrying the beer. On their T-shirts a picture of Mugabe calling for the third Chimurenga. Over a hundred young people dancing, stamping, drumming, screaming and beating their truncheons against the fence. They shout:

«The hospital is full of supporters of the opposition!»

«We know the nurses are all MDC!»

«We’re coming in! We’ll beat you up!»

«You treat enemies of the state! This is forbidden!»

«We’ll beat you up! We’ll kill you!»

The head of the hospital appears on the outside steps. Expressionless, she crosses the yard. The young people fall silent.

Sister Chigaba talks to them through the railing. She says:

«Under this roof we treat everybody. Whatever their convictions. If you dare to cross this threshold, if you dare to harm a hair of even one of our nurses, we’ll shut down the hospital. We won’t lift another finger! This will be the end of our help. For everybody!»

There’s a murmuring in the crowd. The leaders converse in low voices and suddenly a few ZANU politicians from the village step forward.

«Calm down. Calm down. Everything is OK», they say.

Finally the young people push off.

«The youths are angry. Be careful.» one of the party members warns Sister Chigaba, who is still standing at the gate.
«It’s you who needs to be careful!» she replies sharply. «If the hospital staff is intimidated, they’ll stay at home. We cannot work under such conditions.»

«You mustn’t treat people of the opposition! This is provoking!»

«We treat people, not parties!»

«What you’re saying is dangerous, Sister. We are going to put an armed guard outside your gate. You may not get off as lightly next time.»

«Those young people, they need the guard. But alright, send us one. A round the clock guard would be best.»

«We’ll do so, for the night too. But do carry on!»

The hospital remains open. But just before the elections it becomes more and more difficult to take care of the patients. Finally, after some raids on the mission, the doctor leaves. Even Sister Chigaba escapes to safety. In a few weeks, after the elections, everything is over. And the fugitives come back – to the daily struggle of life and death.

Before the doctor returns home to Europe, he goes to see the head of the hospital in her office. She is contemplating a long list of things that they don’t have, can hardly obtain, yet urgently need – medicines, instruments, first-aid supplies, food…

«Running a hospital under such circumstances is not very satisfying. We could do so much more», the Sister says with regret. But then she smiles. Looks unfocused through her thick glasses. What is she complaining about? He who laments is dead already. Besides, «as long as God loves us, we won’t do too badly. Not really anyway.»

As a farewell present for the hospital, the doctor and his family present them with a sheep. The hospital workers slaughter it and the cooks prepare a delicious meal. Sazda with meat, enough for everybody.

After the meal, the head of the hospital asks: «Would you like to have the sheepskin back?» If not, she’s ready to take it. «They’ll all accept it, as I’m the boss. If you give it to anyone else, there might be arguments.»

Of course she gets the sheepskin.

The War of Liberation. The black resistance movement’s fight against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian minority regime is called the Second Chimurenga. The increasingly violent war took place between 1965 and 1979. In 1980, this last European colony gained official independence and the colonial name of Rhodesia was replaced by Zimbabwe. The uprising of the Ndbele and Shona in opposition to the colonisation by white settlers around 1896 is known as the First Chimurenga. This uprising played an important role for the later black nationalist movement. President Mugabe even called his 2001 election campaign against the opposition the Third Chimurenga.

A thick mash made from cornmeal Sadza is the daily bread of the people of Zimbabwe. Only Sadza really fills their stomachs. Here’s a little anecdote: A man brought his wife from the country to the city and took her to a high-class restaurant. She ate what was on the menu, but after eating she asked, «And where’s the meal?». In Zimbabwe, a meal simply isn’t a meal without Sadza, served with vegetables and perhaps a little meat. Without Sadza, the stomach just can’t be full.