WHEN I LOOK online, I do not find my great-uncle Michael Kanerusine’s name on any of the websites my research brings up – not even those that claim ‘97 per cent accuracy’. I know he fought in the Second World War. That’s one fact. It could be a matter of confusion over his surname, I tell myself. As a people, we identify primarily by clan, totem and then father’s name. Perhaps the surname that has eventually become the ‘official’ family name isn’t the one he enlisted under. It’s an imprecise thing, this English naming of Africans – seeking to determine equivalences in kinship patterns, to define what constitutes ‘family’ and inheritance. It can never really survive the translation from one culture to the other.
I am keen to find some verification of my great-uncle’s war record because my memories of his presence remain vivid from childhood and I realise, now that I want to pin down his story, there is no one from his generation whom I can ask. Lucia, my grandmother and Michael’s older sister, died seven years ago and though we spent much time together during my visits to Zimbabwe, we always had so much else to talk about. So much to laugh about. And now, every time I speak with my mother about him, the story changes.
Here’s what I do know. More than one million black African soldiers from the British Commonwealth served and fought in the Second World War and after. My great-uncle’s regiment, the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), was formed in 1940 with many of its troops recruited from the rural areas – leaving their homesteads and farms for battlefields in Europe, North Africa and East Asia. Some volunteered, some were conscripted, some went at the behest of their local chiefs. I know that in 1944–45 soldiers from the RAR were in Burma. Later, after the war, in 1951, I read, they fought in Egypt during the Suez Emergency. In 1956 they were deployed to Malaya.
One final fact: in April 1981, following Zimbabwe’s independence from colonial rule, the RAR was disbanded along with the other regiments of the Rhodesian armed services, replaced by the formation of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.
I have always been fascinated by these soldiers. When I first lived in London thirty years ago, my boyfriend’s grandmother gifted us her flat in Sloane Square – a temporary home for our gap year after she had moved to a nursing home and was waiting for the flat to be sold. As I wandered this incredibly posh neighbourhood I kept seeing old men dressed in smart scarlet coats with brass buttons and black trousers with a single red stripe piped along each outside seam. I asked about them. They were Chelsea Pensioners, retired soldiers who lived at the Royal Hospital Chelsea – a Christopher Wren building commissioned by Charles II and completed in 1692. The Royal Hospital offers a home for British Army veterans who are without family in their final years. Although I never quite drummed up the courage to speak to any of these old men, I would stare and then smile my most welcoming smile if they looked up and noticed me. I know now that some Chelsea Pensioners are women but the ones I remember seeing were all men. And they were all white. Where, I wondered then – as I still wonder now – were the black and brown veterans? What happened to them and were they as cared for, as recognised, as honoured?
The men of my mother’s maternal clan are tall, strong-boned and handsome. They are powerful and lithe with dark skin and long limbs. Well, my mother says, when I ask about her uncle’s enlistment, we are vaRozvi, you know. He would have volunteered. There was a war; he wanted to go show his spear. She adds, with a sidelong glance at my father: They were the lords – the fighters, the rulers. It is a family joke that my father ‘married up’, his own origins and ancestry not nearly as exalted as those of his wife. Her people once had an empire. They were a fierce, aggressive people whose rule included the south-western plateau of what is now Zimbabwe, and at its zenith extended west towards Botswana and south to north-eastern South Africa. The empire lasted from the late 1600s well into the 1790s when severe drought and stirrings of rebellion from within and without brought about its gradual decline. They are a people who still carry this history with pride. Their totem, Moyondizvo, deviates from the general ascribing of a single animal totem for a clan. I cast about for a translation that captures both the meaning and the spirit: moyo – the heart; ndizvo – that is it; that is the truth…the heart that is true. The Rozvi are ‘the true heart’ – a totem that embraces all others. Or, as I am sure my mother would put it, subsumes all others.
These are my mother’s mother’s people, and although the tradition of patriarchal inheritance would frown on me claiming too much of this history for myself, I am proud of these forebears who were successful farmers, rich in cattle and famous for building cities of stone, for their pottery and, in 1693, for defeating a Portuguese militia who sought to gain control of their gold mines. They traded copper, gold and ivory with Arab merchants and – especially important to me as I try to piece together Michael’s story – they were known as cunning military strategists, developing the ‘cow horn formation’ of battle that Shaka Zulu would later employ against the British. The Moyondizvo praise-song exalts Jengetanyika – the keepers of the land; Kudanga kusina chinoshayikwa – the abundant kraal in which nothing is found wanting. We are warriors, my mother says – sitting up in her chair. And although history books credit the Kingdom of Mutapa as the builders of Great Zimbabwe, the city that gives my country its name, my mother has always shrugged this off. The Mutapa and Rozvi empires ran concurrently and, she is quite clear about this, the books have it wrong. We built those houses of stone.
This is the lineage of Michael Bhasvi Kanerusine. Mu’soja of the Rhodesian African Rifles. Sekuru Toro, the Tall One. Great-uncle Longchase. Moyondizvo. The True Heart. I do not have his rank and, besides a general idea of what his cohort would have done during the war, I know nothing about his wartime experiences. I can only imagine the journey he would have taken as a nineteen year old from Ruzane village, Hwedza, Southern Rhodesia. But as I stole glances at the old men in their Royal Chelsea Hospital uniforms, and later as a commissioning editor searching for writers who could tell the story of the soldiers I longed to know more about, it was his memory that nudged me on.
My great-uncle would have looked stunning in that red coat.
LET ME BEGIN with what I remember. The story my late brothers, my sister and I told one another.
One day my mother’s uncle arrived at our home in Tynwald, Harare. In my memory it is not long after independence, the early 1980s. We lived in a rambling single-storey house set on five acres in what had, merely years before, been a whites-only neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of the city. Michael Kanerusine was my grandmother’s younger brother, the fifth out of ten children. Although our home was a regular stopping point for relatives visiting from the rural areas, including those from Ruzane village, we children had not met him before.
He was an imposing presence: long and lanky with big hands and huge feet. My sister Mavhu remembers how she and our younger brother Nhamu would follow him around the garden, always making sure not to get too close or to bother him as our mother had warned that he had a temper. He gave us a hard time, my mother says when I ask her about this. She tells the story of how he got drunk one day and lay down to sleep on the railway line that ran near our house. He just slept right there on the railway tracks, she sighs. Luckily, some neighbours recognised him and brought him home.
He had gone to fight King George’s war and when he finally made it home he said he had come back from Burma. But what took you so long? Ndangandiri kuhondo. Ndangandichiri kuuya. I was at war. I was still on my way. Sometimes he spoke of being in Algeria, in Angola, Uganda… He mentioned Germany and Russia. One story was that he had participated in a powerful ritual to ensure he would not be killed in battle, that he would survive the war. But the vow he had to make to the ancestors in return for their protection was that he would never again see his parents. By the time he returned, they were already dead.
In the story my siblings and I told each other over the years, Toro’s sojourn with us marked this eventual return home some thirty-five years after the soldiers who fought in World War II would have been decommissioned. We imagined him journeying from the far north, across a continent, stopping along the way as history swept by with world-changing movements of independence, new governments and national identities. I was at war. I was still on my way. It is a story of epic adventure and daring and I have always wanted to believe that I carry his spirit in my heart, have always wanted to be as fearless in my adventures. What better ancestor to claim than one, a colonial subject, who had boldly gone into the world and chosen for himself the timing and manner of his return? I think of the ease with which I cross borders with my dark-red British passport and wonder what it must have meant for a young (and then not so young) man from a southern African village making his way, over a period of more than three decades, across our vast continent. In our minds, Toro became a giant.
As we patch together memories of Sekuru Toro, my father and I search YouTube for versions of ‘Sweet Banana’, the anthem of his regiment. When we find it, my South London kitchen is filled with the powerful a cappella choral of deep African male voices ringing out in call and response:
Nhowo, pfumo, ne tsvimbo Shield, spear and knobkerrie
Ndiyo RAR. Muhondo ne runyararo That’s the RAR. In war and peace
Ndichakutengera sweet banana I will buy you a sweet banana
Burma, Egypt ne Malaya Burma, Egypt and Malaya
Takarwa tikakunda We fought and we conquered…
Muhondo, RAR, tinorwa nekushinga In war, RAR, we fight with courage
My father smiles and marches in place as we lean to the speakers, feeling the reverberation of the deep bass. It is a song that has always moved me – the soldiers’ cadence brave and strong and true. The voices layered and perfectly balanced. Although there are no instruments, as I listen my mind provides the punctuating rhythm of an accompanying drum and I am transported with memories of funerals and church services where melodies much like this sang out in praise or in mourning.
At the chorus the lead and the choir come together with a plaintive promise: Baa-nah nah/Banana/Baa-nah nah, ndichakutengera sweet banana. I will buy you a sweet banana. This has always seemed to me a nonsense line for a soldiers’ song but as a child I heard in it the promise of treats brought home from lands far away. Not unlike the mini chocolate frogs my father would hide in his suit for us to find in jacket pockets when he came home from work.
Ndichakutengera sweet banana.
There is a generation of dispossessed white Rhodesians for whom ‘Sweet Banana’ is the soundtrack to an embittered reminiscence of the ‘good old days’. My life is carefully organised so I only encounter them online, but their numerous Facebook posts and blog entries make clear their longing for the glory of Empire and the life of privilege it bestowed. For me the emotions evoked by ‘Sweet Banana’ are not those of nostalgia for a lost paradise. That is not my people’s memory of the time. Rather, I think of the young men who went ‘to show their spears’, fighting for a king and a people who had stolen their land, sought to subjugate them and continued to exploit the wealth that should have been their inheritance. I think of the descendant of an earlier empire – Kanerusine, son of Bhasvi, muRozvi – who went to war, saw death and bloodshed, and had a long journey home. I hear the singing voices of men who fought in foreign lands and dreamed of buying their intended exotic fruit on their return, a promise of plenty after the heartache of loss. Of a regiment that was later deployed, during the Second Chimurenga, Zimbabwe’s war of independence, as part of the Rhodesian Army, to wage a brutal war against freedom fighters who were, without doubt, their brothers and sisters. Of warriors who, following a negotiated peace, would be branded traitors for having shed the blood of their own kin.
Burma, Egypt ne Malaya Burma, Egypt and Malaya
Takarwa tikakunda… We fought and we conquered …
MY MOTHER IS not, after all, so sure about this story of the long journey home. When I call her to clarify dates, she tells me that she suspects that her uncle may have returned much earlier and had been hiding out until he was sure he would not violate the terms of his ritual oath. I am nonplussed. This is not the right story. She goes on regardless. Sekuru Toro slept a lot. He also drank a lot and although none of us can quite say exactly what it was, we agree that he had an odd manner, a strange way of seeing things and telling things. There was awkwardness to how he moved, because of his height – his head above everyone else’s shoulders, his gait out-striding all companions. His nickname, Longchase, given in mocking acknowledgement of his height – long chassis. My sister tells me she was always fascinated by his feet. When he came to live with us he owned only a pair of mapatapata sandals because he could not find shoes that fit. He wore those flip-flops or walked barefoot and his feet were always dusty. My parents, distressed by the fact that their elderly relative had no shoes, tracked down a cobbler and had a pair custom made for him. They were shiny and black, my sister says, adding that it was the only time she ever saw him truly happy.
Although he generally refused to talk about the war or about much of his life after that, it clearly had affected him profoundly. I suspect the boy who went off so bravely into the unknown at the age of nineteen would probably have always been a rebel. In our deeply conformist society, Toro defied the obligations of family – that duty that is both swaddling and shackle – rejecting much of what was expected of him. He was always running away, my mother says. When his younger brother Hosea died, the family decided it would be a good idea for Toro to follow tradition and marry the widow, so the children would stay in the family. But when I went to get her and brought her to Toro, my mother recalls, he just said no and ran off. He wasn’t interested.
During the end of his time with us, Toro was suffering from kidney disease. My septic tank is blocked, he told my mother. When he died the family struggled to find an affordable coffin for his tall frame. The funeral home suggested they could break his legs to fit the body into their longest coffin. Even with an open viewing, nobody would need to know. Although my mother tried to keep this conversation hushed, her aunts, Toro’s surviving sisters, overheard and fell to weeping at the prospect. He came back to us from the war whole when others did not, they said. How can you send him to the ancestors with his body broken?
In the end, Toro was buried in a specially extended coffin. When my mother tells us this last story I can feel the anguish of my great-aunts at the thought of those long limbs and sturdy feet broken and distorted. Think how far they carried him, I say to my sister. No, that’s not what is important, Mavhu counters. Moyondizvo. It was his true heart that carried him.
ONE OF MY first-ever business trips was to a conference in Lagos, Nigeria. I was sponsored by the British Council and, as this was early in my career, I did not know enough about these things to be wary of the Afriqiyah Airways bargain-basement flight that would stop off in Libya on the way back from Nigeria. It is a flight I would now refuse, decades and thousands of air miles later. On that journey home, still heady from my first introduction to the chaotic pace and the majestic confidence of Lagos – already more than a little in love with the city and its people – I found myself awaiting a delayed connection between Tripoli and London. At some point, I never found out why, passengers with European passports were separated from those travelling as Africans. Although uneasy at this segregation, I was relieved to find myself with others whose nationalities guaranteed a certain ease of movement – motives unsuspect, the authority of our documentation easily recognised.
I think back to this experience as I try to piece together my great-uncle’s story and what it means to me, and am again filled with shame at the relief I felt that my red passport set me apart. I had married the boyfriend whose grandmother gave us the Sloane Square flat and have been a naturalised British citizen now for seventeen years. That trip to Lagos would have been one of the first I made with the documentation of my powerful new identity, a stamp of belonging that, even without Empire, granted me privilege and a freedom of movement that my kin across the continent are consistently denied. My passport labels me a traveller, a visitor – not a migrant, not a refugee. And I have made good use of it. In the years since that first visit, work, in the form of literature festivals, conferences, workshops and launch events, has taken me to six of the seven continents. I have become an efficient, experienced traveller. But I am uneasy still.
In our childhood story of Toro’s long journey home, his greatcoat is the passport given by colonial masters in exchange for joining the war effort. And in our imaginations, rather than being lost or abandoned, he was a brave adventurer, claiming his status as a citizen of Empire and then Commonwealth, journeying to see a world bigger than his own. My disquiet is this: is the claiming of my adventure (the greatcoat protection of my red passport) and my ability to choose the timing and manner of my travel really as bold as that of Toro? This is I do know: privilege always comes at a cost. A soldier’s sacrifice is clear. What is the price I pay?
DURING THE SUMMER weeks that my parents and sister visit me in London and we share memories of Toro, trying to figure out the truth of his life, I am recovering from a serious illness. After months of aching bones and crushing fatigue I find that my fingers and toes have started to tingle. I struggle to get out of bed and finally I make my way to the doctor with a list of symptoms that do not, at first, seem to be related. I just know that I feel awful. A series of blood tests reveals that I have a severe deficiency of vitamin B12 – I am vegan and this deficit is purely the result of carelessness on my part; I should have been taking supplements. I also have alarmingly low levels of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.
My best friend Georgina has also been ill. We joke that this is the curse of middle age; from now on it will just be one ailment after another. As we meet to console each other over cocktails, she tells me that she has had a pre-cancerous growth removed from the skin on her leg. Georgina is fair, a pale white African. And while her parents had found a home in what was then Rhodesia, and she herself still longs for the familiarity of the city where we both grew up, the disease that threatens her is the direct result of a genetic inheritance not programmed for the sunlight and heat of the savannah.
Our bodies are in rebellion, I say to her. I am in England suffering from not enough sun and your skin is protesting all those years in Zimbabwe with too much. What does that mean? It strikes me that the ease of movement I have been worrying over is, in this case at least, overridden by a purely biological reality. It should be comforting: no matter how far, or in what manner, we travel, even if we no longer feel ourselves strangers in a strange land, here is, on a molecular level, a reminder of where the true heart once belonged. I am fascinated and horrified in equal measure. It is a troubling thought for a wandering soul such as mine. I believe in the right of movement, in borders that are welcoming and acknowledge the value and contribution of the sojourner and the incomer. It is unimaginable to me that my DNA would reject the decisions I have made about where to live and I baulk at any conclusion that biology determines destiny or destination.
I tell my sister about this harsh realisation that my body can shut down in protest over its dislocation, and about my persistent worry over the privilege that allows that same wandering. I am circling around the idea that our forebear’s journeys somehow augured my own. I want to make sense of Toro’s life, to find a way of understanding why, of all the elderly relatives who lived with us in Tynwald, and despite the ever-shifting versions, his is the story that remains in our imaginations. Mavhu refers me to Toni Morrison, always a good stopping point when one is seeking clarity.
One of the central characters in Morrison’s novel Beloved (Alfred A Knopf, 1987) is a formerly enslaved ferryman named Stamp Paid. He operates as part of the Underground Railway, ferrying others who have escaped slavery across the water, to freedom. The name ‘Stamp Paid’ refers to an incident in the character’s life in which he is forced to make a shocking sacrifice to satisfy the whim of his master’s son. He gives in, at great cost to himself and at an even greater cost to his family. In the devastating aftermath he renames himself. Stamp Paid. He has given all he has and owes no more. While Morrison allows for this character to be fatally flawed, there is a power in this renaming, this claiming of freedom for oneself. My sister says not to feel guilty about my British passport and the access and privilege it allows. Stamp paid, she says. And if I am constantly sure that my identity is one forged despite the institutions of our country’s colonial past, and not defined by that past, I can enjoy the benefit. Indeed, we have earned it, over the generations. Stamp paid.
This is an appealing idea. It is a good story and I am tempted to see Toro’s service, along with the bitter legacy of the theft of land and resources, the suppression of culture and identities that is the unwelcome inheritance of any descendent of a colonised people, as my stamp paid. But, still, I am not entirely convinced. My great-uncle, and all the other African soldiers in that war, was fighting for a master who would have him in bondage. Even if my forebears gave all they had, I am quite clear that there was never any debt in the first place.
IN THE AFTERMATH of Word War II, with Britain and France victorious but depleted in funds and influence, the Africans who had fought on behalf of those colonial powers asked themselves: why would I be prepared to die for your freedom and not to fight for my own? These veterans had journeyed far and seen the white man (and other black peoples) at their best and at their worst. They knew, first hand, the base humanity of those who claimed to be their masters. After the war they would, in the mid-1950s through to the 1970s, be at the forefront of resistance movements across the continent, leading to the end of colonial rule and the formation of more than fifty majority-ruled nations.
Commonwealth documents in hand, the generation that would identify themselves as African nationalists travelled to the university at Fort Hare in South Africa, to Gray’s Inn, London, England, to medical school in Scotland – the education they brought back a new kind of spear and shield. My own father travelled to the United States, and after gaining two degrees returned to what was then still Rhodesia – in its final days – to help build a new nation.
Zimbabwe has been independent since 1980, and was ruled by the same president for thirty-seven years, until November 2017. The deprivations and hardship of an autocracy that denies the rights and neglects the welfare of its people are not what I have planned to write about here. Suffice to say that from a small nation of just sixteen million, it is estimated that up to a third of our population lives in the diaspora – fleeing political persecution, lack of opportunity, economic meltdown, hunger. In 2013, an amendment to the constitution prohibited the holding of dual citizenship. Part of the price I have paid for my British passport is the loss of my Zimbabwean citizenship. It is, perhaps, this severing of my right to claim this precious inheritance – albeit only in the form of the expired green passport that I am unable to renew – that disturbs me the most.
IT IS APRIL 2013 and I am in Sudbury Hill, north-west London, after a long day participating in my niece Kazvare’s traditional marriage ceremony. Her mother Vimbai is a friend – now a sister – from boarding school in Harare and I am here in my official capacity as Maiguru, older mother. It is a role I cherish. We are, my school friends and I, the luckiest of our country’s diaspora. Though transplanted to London, it was for most of us a journey made willingly – family circumstance and education, and in some cases marriage, allowing us to determine the manner and timing of our arrival and stay.
Kazvare’s intended is a young man from Sierra Leone and they are a perfect match, both African children raised in the UK. As she is the oldest of our children, this marriage is a first for us and we have thought through each aspect of it carefully. A traditional roora ceremony would involve the exchange of cash (in lieu of livestock – the chickens and goats and cows with which a Shona groom’s family compensates his fiancée’s people for the loss of her labour as she moves to their homestead). We have decided to place a £5 cap on each step in the ceremony. More the price of a pint of beer than any decent livestock. Vimbai, a gifted writer, has set out the roora ceremony as a play – a tidy script that is easy for the in-laws from Sierra Leone and the young British-Africans to follow. It is a wonderful if exhausting day, with everyone approaching their parts with enthusiasm and a shared understanding of the importance of traditions, even those who have been transported across time and place. We are adept at this delicate balance, this translation from one culture to another, this scripting of new traditions and stories to fit our new home and the lives we have established here.
Every family has their founding myths. This is what my siblings and I shared. I was at war. We had a great uncle who was a brave soldier who fought in the war and walked across a continent to find his way home. I have always believed this to be true. When faced with my mother’s uncertainty, I start to waver about writing Toro’s story and my sister points out (again!) that the detail is not what is important. That I must find meaning beyond the facts that have eluded me. We had a great uncle who was a brave soldier who fought in the war but his sworn oath to the ancestors meant it took him years finally to find his way home. I was still on my way.
What is significant, I finally decide, is the telling of Toro’s long journey, whatever the circumstances or the timing. The memories we have of his life. Our acknowledgement of his existence. He did not return to be a freedom fighter – his fighting days were over – and there is little record of him beyond these family stories. He appears in no history books. But to us he was a giant, a predecessor whose spirit helped launch us into the world. I realise that this is what has me clinging to the memory of Sekuru Toro. He was always on his way back home. Ndangandichiri kuua. That is not true for me. Even if I buy into the tempting assurance of a stamp paid and can wield the power of a new identification with some acceptance of its cost, I am left struggling to make peace with the fact that I have broken faith with the legacy of that journeying and return.
25 November 2017