There is a house on the corner of Raymond and Dunbar streets in Yeoville known simply as the Shona House. Yes, it is true what they say about South Africa and Johannesburg in particular: it is home to all of Africa.
When people go to eat at Kin Malebo, which is in Raleigh Street, about half a kilometre from the Shona House, they say they are going to the Congo because the place is owned and patronised mostly by Congolese people. Depending on the eateries-cum-drinking places along Rockey and Raleigh streets, you will also find Nigeria, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
The Shona House has a character all of its own. I discovered it by chance through a friend, who dislikes it because “they are Shona, I am Ndebele. We do not mix.”
One often hears of the acrimony between the Shona and the Ndebele, but that was the first time I felt it with such force. The thing that hits you when you enter this drinking house is the pungent smell of stale beer and the smoke from the cooking fire. About three families live in the main house. At the back, five rooms are occupied by Shona tenants. They share a single toilet and a washing line. It is all controlled chaos.
And then there are the patrons, many of whom are Shona. They are the face of the worst that President Robert Mugabe has done to his people. It is said there are two million Zimbabweans living illegally in South Africa. I do not know how many of the people who frequent the Shona House add to that number, but with one or two exceptions all of them lend full expression to what it means to struggle daily against losing hope.
Many are unemployed, surviving through means not altogether kosher. One of them, a sweet fellow named Teddy I once befriended, is no longer around; he is serving a jail term for robbery.
In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Weep Not, Child, the day-dreaming character, Njoroge, refuses to give up hope for a better tomorrow: “Yes. Sunshine always follows a dark night. We sleep knowing and trusting that the sun will rise tomorrow.” But when hope finally abandons Njoroge, he decides to kill himself.
But the people who go to the Shona House refuse to give up hope. Yes, some like Sipho, who is unemployed (although small-scale card fraud used to be one of his activities), have given up hope of ever going back to Zimbabwe alive, but the will to live is too strong. They are a small community of brothers and sisters, these people.
Earlier this year, one of them, Mampu, died. She had been sick and faded away poor and alone in a hospice in a foreign country. But the Shona House community raised money and made sure her body was sent home for a decent burial.
This is the spirit that binds these people who have not forgotten how to laugh and have fun and dance to long-ago songs of freedom, mourning, as Parker D Robbins once wrote of Zimbabwe, “psyches out of joint”.