My father had been ill for as long as I could remember. It was rumored that his relatives were responsible for his illness, since they were suspected of practicing witchcraft. At the age of six, I found all of this puzzling. We were never taken to meet our grandparents and did not have any of the fun rural experiences that the other children spoke about on the first day of school. After battling his illness for a long time, my father breathed his last. Shortly before he died, he instructed us never to set foot in places that he himself had not taken us to. This plainly referred to the homesteads of my divorced grandparents and to where his half-siblings lived.
When he was young, my grandparents placed him in the care of my great-grandmother Shila, who died when he was twelve, leaving him to fend for himself. Times were difficult, he said. Most days he didn’t have enough food to eat, and he walked to school barefoot. He never experienced parental love, which stoked his bitterness towards my grandparents.
This resentment became family dogma, since it was quickly adopted by his spouse, my mother. This resulted in a very strained relationship between her and her in-laws. As she was now our sole guardian, my siblings and I never set foot in our rural home in Chigodora. I knew my grandfather had a dimple on his chin just like my father and me, but I could not conjure up the image of his face. I never got to meet him often. Yet I wish I’d had the chance—a chance to know my origins. Poor eleven-year-old me, I was the only male in the family with my surname, and I felt troubled by this wall that had been erected and was never to be crossed under the watchful eye of my mother. Was I to be the one to start a new clan with my name? Maybe, but I was ignorant of the true teachings of my identity. How was I to instill our norms and culture in my children when I myself was not able to tap into the wisdom of my forefathers?
Years passed. My sense of belonging even subsided, because the only time I would hear my surname being called was when it referred to me. I was completely surrounded by the maternal side of my family. They were the only extended family I knew. At family functions, weddings, and funerals, I never rubbed shoulders with anyone of my paternal blood. I really would have liked to grow up knowing my own people and sharing the same struggles—but what was I to do when the ones who fed me forbade it? It was not my choice to make. When I ask my friends which of their relatives they’re closest to, they always remark on a lack of connection with the paternal side of the family. They say there is comfort in numbers, but that doesn’t console me.
I grew up and there came a point when I was able to make decisions on my own. I started reaching out to my paternal grandmother, who was very excited to be reunited with her husband—me, according to Shona culture. It is the custom for a woman to regard her male child’s son as her husband. Obviously I would do this “nicodemously” at night as I did not want to create problems with my mother. We laughed a lot and I heard stories about my father when he was young, things he’d never told me. I then learned that the people I called my own were a small group of aunts and uncles and a few nephews and nieces who led very humble lives marked by poverty. They would constantly ask me why I was not keen to see them, why I excused myself from most of the things that involved them. It was not by choice but circumstance.
I still feel I would not have done justice to myself if I’d neglected to make an effort to connect with my roots. Do I have to wait until I’m old enough to feed and take care of myself to dare go against my father’s wishes? Am I wrong to even consider it when I have no idea why the situation came to be like this? Even if I could successfully reconcile and reassemble the family, the amount of black tax I’d have to pay would be unbearable. I might have to start my own clan in order to be free—finally—to make my own choices.
16 February, 2023