A Journey Back Home

By Stephen Pech Gai
Stephen Pech Gai's stories

Whenever he called, the children cried on the other end of the line. Papa Maji knew that the children wouldn’t pay heed to their mother’s explanation. He was worried that Maji and John hadn’t understood why he decided to leave them. Before his journey to Harare, he had never spent an evening away from home. He had been away for a fortnight and it seemed like a year.

Papa Maji remained with a single option: to board the bus to the Camp. He left his friend’s home, a walkable distance from the Mbare post office next to the bus terminal. His feet raced as much as his heart to see his children. Tongogara’s specific bus leaves when the sun is high and arrives late in the Camp but he wished to see his family before sunset.

He spent two weeks in Harare searching for a job. He realized all jobs were occupied. As he walked through the busy people and tight traffic jams, it boggled his mind that everyone in Harare might be working and earning money, while he could find nothing. He was uneased by the thought of taking nothing home. Dangling from his shoulder was his tiny bag packed tightly with his belongings.

Mbare is where he met many people from the Camp, long-time friends he thought were not even in the country, and some who had left the Camp recently. They spoke Swahili, with a few using Kinyarwanda, but Shona is the dominant language. This is not Tongogara where thousands of languages dissolved into beautiful Swahili, a lingua Franca that binds all persons from across the continent who are forced to flee.

Making the way to the bus terminal is a toil; it was some minutes past six o’clock and Papa Maji was about to miss the first bus. The narrow way he took was filled with countless heavy coaches, buses and taxis with drivers devising consummate skills to pass each other. Many hand-driven carts and a lot of pedestrians passed in close contact.

“Let’s go, our bus is short with one seat, we are leaving now,” called the conductor of a different coach that was heading to Bulawayo, the country’s second city. So early in the morning, the bus park was teeming with travelers and road transports likely from all over the country side.

“I’m looking for Tongogara or Chibuwe bus, is that yours?” Papa Maji asked the conductor. The driver pointed him to another long bus with a bar of painted tin labeled Cherezi-Kondo-Chibuwe-Tongogara visible through the windshield.

The conductor, a heavy set lady dressed in shabby clothes, welcomed him and asked him whether he had some luggage. “Is this the first bus?” Papa Maji asked.

“Sekuru, you need the first bus or you need to reach Tongogara, this time is late for the first bus, it left ten minutes ago.” The conductor in her shrilling voice respectfully addressed him as an elderly man in Shona.

Papa Maji gazed at his wristwatch which displayed a quarter past six already. The time was too early indeed for a second bus that leaves around 8 or 9 o’clock but not too late for the first bus. Perhap this was a different time, the Christmas season. Most people came to the capital city to buy all manner of items ahead of the Christmas celebrations and most passengers chose the first bus. It is a tiresome journey to wait for the second bus that wanders around the surrounding villages and arrives at the Camp with all passengers in exhaustion.

“Sekuru, you are thinking too much, I asked whether you have some luggage. I know you need to smuggle them in but my eyes are open.” The conductor was adamant to charge any sort of load in the car boot.

“I have no luggage apart from this small bag,” he replied. He asked for a ticket and the conductor told him that it goes for seventeen dollars. It used to be fifteen dollars but with the hike in gas price, the cost for transport had gone up. “I have fifteen dollars only,” Papa Maji tried to bargain with the conductor as he pulled the money out of his back pocket. “Sekuru, your money is little and your bag is big enough to be in the boot,” said the conductor.

“No way.” Papa Maji touched his bag to demonstrate how light it was. He headed to the bus entrance. The conductor smiled and took the fifteen dollars. He boarded the bus of so many rows and columns of seats with few scattered passengers. No time could tell when it would be full. He went straight to the window seat. He needed to have a look at the landscape and also acquaint himself with the area. Papa Maji travelled through the night when he came to Harare. The daily intercity bus from the Camp left in the evening and it reached the city the following morning.

Also, it was annoying to book the aisle seat because he would be disturbed by passengers with their unending movement and also the vendors who flooded in when the bus stopped. The frustrating part was before the bus left the terminal. Vendors came in a long thread, creating chaotic movement in the bus while some were mistaken for customers, giving an illusion that all passengers are in.

Papa Maji had two dollars in his other pocket after the negotiation with the conductor saved him money. In his mind, he could buy a bottle of soft drink and some cookies wrapped in plastic for his lunch. Now he could also buy gifts for his two children. Papa Maji longed for a better life for his family when he considered working in Harare but things worked out unexpectedly. Nonetheless, he needed to surprise his kids and show them that he hadn’t left home for nothing.

As many hawkers squeezed onto the bus, he decided not to risk getting off the bus before departure. From his window seat, he beckoned to a hawker who presented him a huge tray of toys. He bought a tiny perfect doll for Maji and a little car for John. Christmas is booming and any sort of present that triggers a smile on the face of a poor child is a blessing that lights the whole house.

The bus warmed up to depart in an hour, The boot was full and all seats were occupied while a handful of individuals stood. Most of the standing passengers were from the sprawling suburb of Harare and the nearby cities like Marondera. They came here to import goods with affordable costs of transportation.

Papa Maji surveyed the town as the bus snaked to the edge of the city. It was a beautiful drive, a season marked with beautiful blossoming Jacarandas, with purple leaves shimmering after a little shower. A slight stale breeze seeped in as the bus bid goodbye to the city view.

Calling out at the top of her lungs with a screaming voice, the conductor in her duty of issuing fare tickets continued to comb the bus. She started questioning those she suspected may be cheating her in her profitable boot.

“If your luggage is not recorded in your ticket or you don’t have a separate ticket or you didn’t pay at the terminal, it is not your luggage,” said the conductor to frighten the passengers. But not long before her last words did a group of individuals come forward revealing the items they’d snuck into the boot without her noticing.

At noon, the bus climbed to Welcome to Mutare, a gorgeous open mountaintop that overlooked the city in great depth. Papa Maji inspected through the window and spotted a clear sky view at the horizon. Five hours drive, the driver smiled to himself. He had covered the long distance safely.

Mutare is where the bus stops for an hour. All passengers alighted to take a break, with some buying forgotten items, mostly groceries. Others broke for lunch and a few to relieve themselves or stretch their legs and arms cramped from a long trip.

The driver would relax his mind, too, with at least a glass of beer. It is against the safe traffic rules to drive while drinking but it is not short of conventional wisdom to replenish the energy that steers the driving wheels. The long journey was over but the tiresome drive lay ahead.

Papa Maji remained on the bus. He opened his bible and read Colossians 3:2: “The earthly possessions are inferior to the heavenly ones….Set your mind on things above, not the earthly materials.” It was a fantastic and fascinating verse. He was engrossed till the last minute when the passengers came back to claim their seats.

The long coach geared up on its way to the country’s southeastern side. The sun slanted reflecting rays of heat through the glass windows. Beyond the tollgate of Mutare, the driver held down the break at almost any roadtrack that led to some few houses or one that stood lonely in the widespread acacia and baobab bushes for some passengers to move out while others came in.

Papa Maji fell asleep and woke up to the bumps when the bus left the tarmac road and branched to the villages before the Camp. It was a short distance of 10km but it was a full hour later before the bus arrived in the Camp. It spew a cloud of dust to a group of children shouting “Inter-Africa, Inter-Africa!”. It sped into the bus stop in continuous hooting as the children followed in a dance spree.

Papa Maji’s first glimpse of the Camp as the bus emerged from the bush showed him something unfamiliar. The usual look of his place of long-time residence offered a new sensation; perhaps the weather had changed. The cold weather had averted the summer heat and the summer-scorched vegetation had turned green.

The first person to come out of the bus was Papa Maji. A few minutes earlier, he had moved closer to the entrance. The family immediately met in a tight hug while the children broke in tearful joy: their father is back. John studied his father quietly as they walked gracefully home with all their hands glued together side-by-side. Papa Maji had lost a significant amount of weight but his cheerful happiness with his family went beyond a wrinkled body.

 

2 December, 2022