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The big ball of string

Growing up as a little girl in Southern Rhodesia one of my most poignant memories is of my mum’s visits to the leper colony across the valley at Mount Mutemwa which was opposite our home in Mutoko.

Our house was at the foot of a black granite kopje (hill), a place where bright blue and orange lizards and rock rabbits (dassies/hyrax) basked in the sun, squirrels hunted for seeds and berries, eagles soared in the blue sky overhead and the huge wild fig trees dripped with sticky red fruit. It was a big double storey rented house with a tragic history behind it and sweeping views across the valley and into the haze of the blue mountains in front of it.

Once a month the church ladies would come to help make up the individual parcels for the leper colony. Later they would take their shoes off and sit in a circle on the floor drinking tea and eating scones and triangle sandwiches, talking, laughing and singing, me and my siblings hiding on the staircase giggling and peeping at the great tea party going on down below. When it was leper colony day we all helped and the parcels were gathered and loaded, each one wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. Parcels had open sandals, clothes, food, medicines, bandages and toiletries. The individual parcels would be given one by one to men and women infected with leprosy living across the valley in the shadow of Mount Mutemwa.

It was only much later that I would understand why mum always collected string, knotting even the shortest bits together and rolling them into a big ball – string to tie parcels up with.

In later years as the country became Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe, my mum was involved with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and kept leaving her mark with young Zimbabweans, as a teacher in classrooms in Harare, as a teacher trainer at Nyadire Teachers College in Mutoko and then for the Zimbabwe Open University.

When Macheke farmer David Stevens was abducted and taken to the hills of Murehwa in April 2000 at the start of land invasions, my mum was living in Murehwa, the district where her heart had always been for much of her life. When other farmers came to Murehwa to try and rescue Dave and were themselves abducted, from the police station, mum and all her friends and neighbours knew of the terror that was unfolding but were powerless to do anything.

Stevens was murdered that day in the granite hills in Murehwa, witnessed by scores of people, in the town with a secret which is to this day a town where justice has yet to be done. The chains to my mum’s heart began to be broken as her beloved Zimbabwe became engulfed in terror, secrets, whispers, oppression and impunity.

Like hundreds of thousands of others my mum left her heart in Zimbabwe when she had to leave in 2004 as oppression grew, political violence increased and economic mayhem made life impossible. Like hundreds of thousands of others, including many who read these Letters From Zimbabwe, my mum never forgot the secrets of what was really happening in Zimbabwe, never forgot what she had seen and heard and never stopped following the news and I write this letter today for her.

Rest in peace mum (1933-2023).

Until next time, thanks for reading this Letter From Zimbabwe now in its twenty-third year, and my books about life in Zimbabwe, a country in waiting.

Ndini shamwari yenyu (I am your friend)

Copyright © Cathy Buckle


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