“Ndouyeyo!” he would say, intimidating us children. “Ndouyeyo,” which translates as “I’m coming for you,” was Sekuru Peter’s way of scaring us off to bed. “You’ll scare the kids to death,” Mum would scold Sekuru Peter each time he pulled his little stunt and drove us to tears.
Sekuru Peter was fifty, so he said, but some people suspected he was sixty. He was happy that his age was the subject of intrigue and speculation. My paternal grandmother was related to him, hence Sekuru Peter could be translated as Uncle Peter. He was the quintessential comedian, but his antics would leave us children terrified and awestruck. He was full of laughter, always giggling and smiling. He lived alone in an unfinished red brick house without a life partner or any children. It was not known whether he cared to bathe or cook, for he was a man fond of patrolling the village streets every day, hoping to be offered some grain beer or a meal at a neighbor’s house and so get through the day without having to do anything himself. Each time he popped by our house he helped himself to pieces of meat from the pot simmering on the stove, or he rummaged through the kitchen cupboards for bread or a tin of biscuits. He did as he pleased, because he knew that our family loved and respected him—after all, he was related to our grandmother. Each time he fished out a piece of meat from the pot, he would shout, “Mai Nyasha,” referring to my mum. “You’re spoiling the kids by letting them live a life of opulence, cooking them expensive beef every day. Beef is for adults.”
It was said Sekuru Peter’s profession was that of a bus conductor. “He plied his trade on the famous Derera bus line,” my mum would say of Sekuru Peter’s exploits in the seventies. “He was very good at riffling through dollar bills and counting sums in his head without a calculator—and of course stealing some of the proceeds from the bus owner.”
Sekuru Peter himself never opened up to us about his past job or love life. Any attempt to interrogate him on that count was met with fierce, dismissive laughter, and the more we would try to probe, the more he would go berserk. “If you keep asking questions, tomorrow I’ll come back here wearing dirty plastic rags,” he threatened. Hearing those threats, us children would scream for our mum and leave Sekuru Peter alone with his thoughts. “Don’t ask him about his past or he’ll eat your lunch,” Mum would warn us in her turn.
And so with time, as our curiosity about Sekuru Peter’s past deepened, our dread of him grew. “Ndouyeyo!”—“I’m coming for you!”—he would growl from the footpath in our pineapple garden, threatening to descend on our playground. We would scatter like chicken spooked by a whirlwind and run to Mum, weeping, “Sekuru Peter is scaring us, threatening to grab us!”
Mum would admonish Sekuru Peter for a while, saying it was cruel to scare us children. Sekuru Peter would laugh derisively and of course help himself to a plateful of rice, mango juice, and goat meat from our kitchen before strolling the two kilometers to his home, where he was hardly to be found except in the hours of the night.
It was a Sunday morning when word spread in the village of his death. I remember it vividly. “Sekuru Peter has been found dead, face down in the soil in the village well,” the village chief announced. A village search party had set out at dawn to look for him. Bathrooms were scoured, bushes and banana fields were searched by torchlight, and the local riverbed was ransacked for clues. At last, a bulky carpenter stumbled upon Sekuru Peter’s remains in a disused well where the water level was shallow. His shoulders were cold and stiff. Nobody dared touch him until the village chief arrived.
Sekuru Peter’s surviving family lived across the river, in a village that was a long way away on foot. He had hardly ever spoken about them, and they had seldom visited him in his lifetime. Of his family, only one lady who claimed to be a long-lost sister, her face painted with grey ash, appeared on the afternoon of the funeral, wailing, weeping, and flinging her hat into the air. She climbed down into Sekur Peter’s fresh grave alone, to sweep it ahead of the lowering of the coffin. Then she directed the twelve volunteer undertakers to let down Sekuru Peter’s remains. He was quickly laid to rest. No postmortem was done and any talk of Sekuru Peter’s past professional life and love life seemed to be suppressed at the funeral. This deepened my curiosity about who Sekuru Peter really was.
“He was the quintessential comedian, laughing, loving—a delightful soul in this village,” Mum finally opened up to me.
“But why did he laugh so much, so hard?” I asked Mum.
“You ask too many difficult questions,” Mum replied.
“Because for such a shifty character, he leaves behind an impressive red brick house and a mysterious cause of death,” I told Mum.
She laughed as if to inhale air rather than expel it, scanned the kitchen as if looking out for spies, and, stroking my forehead, whispered: “Behind the soft laughter of Sekuru Peter, his loving humanity, there was a sinister story. It’s said that in the sixties when he was a bus conductor he killed a man for ritualistic purposes, to advance his career and increase his earnings. The avenging spirit of the dead man drove him to be a wayward comedian, laughing day after day until his death on Sunday. On Saturday he laughed for the last time.”
As soon as Mum said those words, she froze—she had been slicing cabbages—and fell silent. She had accidentally revealed a grave secret, it seemed, and now she couldn’t take back her words. “How will I live with myself if the kids spread this gossip in the village square?” she said, scanning my face for a reaction.
I hugged her around the neck and assured her, “Don’t worry, I promise not to reveal the truth about him, unless my children ask me on my deathbed about our family secrets.”
10 March, 2023