Not yet time to plan a return trip to Zim

"This land, my brother, my sister, so cruel, so gentle at times, but still beloved," I wrote one day in my small diary. I was remembering the day I left Zimbabwe: the country I had never thought I would leave. 

Home is supposed to be "sweet home", but after many years in exile I wrote the book Homeless, Sweet Home to acknowledge my nomadic life, carrying the baggage of the fear of my country.

My mother did not cry when I left. She hugged me and said she would wait for me to return before she would succumb to death. And I promised not to not die in foreign lands. We shook hands, and for the first time in all my snuff-taking years, she asked for a pinch of the tobacco at the airport. She tapped my snuff horn on to her palm, sniffed a little bit and sprinkled the rest on the shiny floor of the airport lounge, her lips quivering in tense silence.

"Usakurumidza kudzoka, Dziva, unogugwa musoro, vanoda kukugura musoro (Don't come back anytime soon, my son. They want to decapitate you)," she said. 

I held back my tears as I heard the hidden music of the birds, the wild winds of home, the rough flow of the streams with whose language I first learnt to know the world. 

Pain and tears: maybe I will not smell the leaves of home anytime soon, I felt.

The last pain was the sharpest. It made me view my country through unnameable wounds, endless, invisible, innumerable; and sad farewells of those who left before me and died in foreign lands without anybody to comfort their last breaths. 

I would later cry at the anguish of my mother refusing to enter a hospital without medicines, dying of cancer in a village where even a painkiller was an endangered species. 

Until her death on February 8 2010, she vowed to protest my return. The same torturers who threatened me daily were still alive. Nothing had changed, she agonised. Violence, the most primitive and vulgar of human behaviour, still engulfed the land, she said.

How did our beloved land become so cruel, expelling millions of citizens to seek freedom and dignity in strange lands? And how is it that the leadership and his colleagues in power never bother about citizens who choose to abandon their families, friends, landscapes, the skies of their birth, the beauty of their mountains, rivers and the music of the birds of their birth, to settle in strange lands?

I hear in my inner soul the voice of the pregnant woman who told me years back how the masters of violence had tried to force the tip of a Coca-Cola bottle into her privates. 

Her tears and pain become mine. And the many friends and relatives, some murdered, others dead by natural causes, all those graves! It seems, upon my return, one day, I will spend months visiting the graves and hearing stories of those deaths, the voices of the pain of death at the hands of the dogs of war, the youth militias, the soldiers and others paid to kill.

Zimbabwe is such a wastefully cruel country. Its people wear the dark mask of peace-loving citizens. But they harbour a queer mixture of laughter and horrendous cruelty within their hearts and minds.

In a country enveloped by a thick blanket of fear, sleep is no longer soothing or refreshing for tomorrow's hard work. Those who once thought violence was out there are soon shocked when one day it knocks on their own doors, with the bang of death. In my country, I learnt to know that the distance between sleep and death is short, depending on your political views. Difference is still a crime. 

I fear to live in a country where I have to think about my death day and night.

Zimbabwean politics inherited the bones of colonial corruption without shame. There is not much difference between a critic and an enemy, persuasion and threat. The language of violence is like the language of shopping or fishing, so ordinary.

Corruption begins with the defilement of words, of language. After a day of writing vulgarities and indignities, government journalists sleep with a clear conscience. My country is one where the rulers are afraid of their own fear. It is a country of cheap deaths, solitary blood spilled without winking an eye.

I fear to live in a country where the  imbecilisation of the population is a prime occupation of the state and its institutions. Our rulers are no longer ashamed of shame. 

Plunged into a deep climate of fear, I used to work late into the night in case the kidnappers came for me. I would avoid the humiliation of being dragged away half-naked. I was afraid. 

A country in which almost nothing can be done without corruption is the home of death. Citizens' lives depend on how loud they parrot the name of the president. We have become the breeding house for specialists in political hypocrisy, parrotry, worthless flattery, charlatanism and praise-singing.

Those of us who know the real wounds inflicted on us in our search for freedom and dignity are not welcome at the national debate about our destiny. The pain of being tortured by your own brother is more devastating than the pain inflicted on you by a stranger.

Absence from my country has shown me the ominous side of friends and foes alike, our real face of nationhood. My departure made me cannon fodder for slander, gossip and malice from those who sought benefits by denouncing my name for their own personal and public glory. Deception is a huge part of Zimbabwean identity. In my beloved country, a smile is no sign of love. "Even a dog that bites you shows you its teeth," my aunt once said. I now believe her.

In our cruel, beloved fiefdom, ordinary people are reduced to victims, objects rather than citizens. The ruling elite openly remind you of your eternal vulnerability. "I can make you disappear, you know," they say, as if to canonise you.

In a country where everything is violence, what is there to love? Elections are violence. Public protests are violence. A street chat is violence. The degrees in violence are gained by practice, earned from the reality of the field of violence, the home, the street, the village and the forests. But still, we laugh and hope.

During colonial times, my late mother exiled my elder sister Agnes to Zambia. She had been offered to an elderly man as his young wife. In protest, my mother arranged and planned with her younger sister to smuggle the girl to Zambia, where she hid for more than 20 years. 

And in my case, when she sensed the danger surrounding me, she did not hesitate to advise exile after she received some of my death threats. "Prepare for your son's funeral," they said to her. She hid her tearful eyes from me, retiring to bed early so she could cry alone. 

"You must have friends where you travel. Go away, and don't come back anytime soon. They will kill you," she warned.

Still I hear my mother's voice: "But don't die in foreign lands." And I tell her: "But you did not keep your promise to wait for me.

"Anyway, I will return, just to touch your grave, but not anytime soon," I say to her, as if my country deserves to be reduced to a place where exiled citizens only return to die, to touch old graves, a country reduced to a cemetery by those who wield power without  conscience.

In my long journey home, I will search for the voices that gave me the many colours of imagination and listen to the songs of the birds and rivers of my land. Nothing can take away this deep echo of desire from me.

Chenjerai Hove is a Zimbabwean writer based in the diaspora.

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