For all its isolation and backwardness, Musambakaruma was the backdrop of some of the fondest and most indelible memories of my time in the field. The place was as close to idyllic as you could get, and over there people lived life at a walking pace. It was the only way to live anyway: the place was the nearest to a hot furnace that I ever experienced!
In time, I got to know the terrain and the major players pretty well. From Magunje, you passed through Zvipani, and along the dirt gravel road to the west, through the brown Matusadonha National Park, down the snaking green valley that was Gunguwe River, and you are officially in Musambakaruma. There was a dip tank by the side of the river, and across the makeshift bridge across Gunguwe, a straggle of buildings that passed for shops. You would be lucky to find salt or sugar in there: the standard fare were the potent, illicit spirits from Mozambique and opaque beer that was in great demand in the area.
From Gunguwe, always going west, you passed a community hall of sorts, and then you got to Musambakaruma centre. This wasn’t a centre as such: I cannot find a better word for it. But it was the only really built-up centre in the area. There was a clinic renowned for treating malaria, a secondary school and staff quarters, a primary school and staff quarters, houses and offices for the extension workers. And electricity too, and running water. And one or two shops well stocked on mealie meal and the dried fish or matemba, no doubt an irresistible bait for the rural teachers. And of course the ubiquitous liquor. It was a simple enough place, and the people knew their priorities!
It was also a place where you were more likely than not to find shiny four by four Toyota Landcruisers blazoned with “ECHO” on their doors. These belonged to this NGO or other. NGOs were very active in the area, and on a lucky day, you may find their cars paraded by this or that government office, a veritable beauty contest of who is who of Western development charities. It was a sight to behold, deep in the Zimbabwean rural heartland. But I would not say they were superfluous. On the contrary, there is no doubt in my mind that they saved lives and limbs and facilitated one or two individuals out of the vicious cycle of poverty. But mostly it was fire-fighting: drought relief, disaster relief, vaccinations and the like.
But the political class did not completely forget the area, as I found out one hot September day. I was down at Gunguwe, kicking my heels waiting for the cattle buyers to finish loading the cattle into the truck. Normally my role was to inspect the cattle, and left the loading to the cattle men. And loading was real work: there were no cattle rumps. Loading the cattle was a marvel of physics, brute force and ingenuity. They crowded the cattle onto an ant-hill or other naturally elevated ground, and manoeuvred the truck so that they could force the cattle onto the truck. It was hard and risky: there was a real danger of getting stampeded by frightened cattle. And you always had one or two obdurate animals that would refuse to embark. It was always a battle of wills, but as in all things, humans eventually prevailed.
So here I was, idly watching some local guys play a game of checkers, happily imbibing their opaque beer. It was a lazy and hot September afternoon, and the place was almost empty except for one or two desultory characters hanging around.
Out of nowhere, there was a commotion and visible buzz of excitement as a pick- up truck arrived in a cloud of dust and skidded to a halt at one of the shops. A tall, lanky, loud gentleman got out of the driver’s seat, and an impressive number of people disgorged out of the truck tail. I sat up, as thoroughly enthralled as everyone else at those shops. Shop owners emerged out of nowhere to obsequiously serve the newly arrived group rounds of opaque beers “on the house”. I stared at the spectacle, mouth agape, struggling to understand what the fuss was all about.
My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when the tall magnetic man who was the centre of attraction, disengaged himself from the group and headed straight at me. I looked around in mild panic, thinking that there was somebody beside me who had attracted his attention. Finding no one around me, panic turned to real alarm. But before my befuddled brain could register much, my hands were being gripped in a strong double clasp of greeting, heartily embraced.
“Ah, so you are Magwiroto! You are the one! Ha ha ha ha!” He had a big infectious guffaw that invited you to laugh along. Before I knew what to say, he asked me, “What do you drink?” So being a teetotaller, I replied rather woodenly “Coke”.
“Hey Keeper Storo! What are you waiting for? Bring a litre of Coca Cola for this gentleman right here!” Everything was loud and commanding, with a strong melodramatic edge. In no time, a large bottle of very warm Coca Cola was brought out for me, and I took a sip and then gave my full attention to the Presence! The shop owner was dismissed with a shouted “I don’t have money on me right now, but you can always “write on my back”. That was the local lingua for “extent me some credit”. I have no doubt in my mind that with him, everything was “on the house”!
“My name is Shumbayaonda. The real Shumbayaonda Chandengenda, the lion of Kariba! Heard of me?” Of course I knew of him. Anybody who read newspapers would know of him anyway, with a name like that. But not in my wildest dream did I envisage bumping into him, and have him recognise me! It kind of spooked me.
“I want to thank you for serving my people. Please keep that up. You are welcome in my area, officer. I am here inspecting the damage caused by the strong winds that blew away the roof of one of the classroom of the primary school. Keep up the good work!”. And like the whirlwind that had blown away the school roof, he was gone. The little group leapt into the truck as the car reversed, dangling their legs perilously as the car swerved and sped away, in a puff of smoke and cloud of dust.
You couldn’t dream that scene. Novice extension worker meet the local MP and one time Minister! Pardner, welcome to the African Wild West, the land of lions and the whirlwind.