Playground of my youth
By Natalie Kombe
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It’s easy to forget your dreams in a world full of non-dreamers. It seemed that the theme song of my life was a stray phrase from an old Eagles song. “When you’re trying to find your freedom, nobody seems to care.” I was drowning in a world full of No: where suffering and being miserable meant you were a good person, where being on the wrong side of 25 and unmarried meant you were a lost cause. I was the saint of lost causes, Perdita, and I had no business being happy when others around me struggled to breathe. I too was to become the suffocated, in order to fit in to the society I was born. Any attempt to live to my own tune was seen as a threat to the Status Quo.
It wasn’t always like this, or at least I certainly wasn’t aware of how bound people were to the ideology of the masses. Mob mentality ruled the day and my ideas of progress were routinely burnt at the stakes, in private wars that my personal relationships found themselves conscripted in. Compromise inevitably gave way to sacrifice, who tried by all means to seek permanent residence in my soul. Distorted by the illusions of love, my intellect battled with my emotions as I let Mr unsuitable ride shotgun, or should I say luxuriate in the driver’s seat of my life. I was stuck in arrested development and had become an outline of someone that I used to be.
To understand how I got there, I would have to start at the beginning. I was an only child with doting parents who made sure I knew that the world could be my oyster if I believed in myself enough, and boy did I ever! There was no question in my mind that I would be successful. From the time I was 5 singing along to the TV show fame, I realised that I had a gift and all I wanted to do was to become one of the Greats. From Bulawayo to Hollywood! I knew where I was going, I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to get there but I was going to get there no matter what.
My primary school years were idyllic in a colonial slice of heaven kind of way. It was a prestigious private school where nature’s garden surrounded the buildings. A whole new world and language were introduced to me as I interacted in my new playground. It was the late 80s /early 90s and a rather prosperous time for Zimbabwe. In my childhood eyes, certain incidents were deemed acceptable: looking back now covert racism was a layer in the fibre that was junior school. Oh how my adult mind would have addressed these injustices had I a time machine. All in all though, I never had such adventures under the African sky as I did back in those days. Escapades to Hillside Dams or to the Matobo Hills were some of the privileges we were treated to as part of our school going experience. Those were the times when there was nothing more exciting than swimming in the murky waters of some river, regardless of what might be lurking underneath. During the weekends, as I was a boarder, being allowed to play organised games on the big field after supper, that was something to look forward to. Watching movies that weren’t educational, when a teacher was feeling particularly kind or perhaps too lazy to monitor energetic activities, to me was the beginning.
It was the era of when my obsession with ‘Dirty Dancing’, ‘Pound Puppies’ and ‘Saved by the Bell’ began. I was in love: The cinema became my temple and I its fervent disciple. It was my window to the bigger picture, a revelation that there was more to life than what my current reality had to offer. The day my parents brought the VCR home was the day technology became my friend, my brother, and my sister.
The thing with being born African is that one didn’t live in a vacuum: you were surrounded by The Relatives. My parents were a rather liberated couple that imbibed the school of freethinking with great enthusiasm. Having been educated at the University of Rhodesia in the seventies, which was a huge achievement for two township kids, and also being avid fans of the Rock ‘n’ Roll movement,they thought outside the box and thus imparted their wisdom onto me. In the walls of our home I was free to question things, discover the world and form my own opinions. I even used to refer to them by their first names, which was unheard of in African culture. Which is why at my seventh birthday party, a stern faced aunt or grandaunt chided me and told me it simply was not done to call parents by their first names. It had begun! The first strip of the innocence that Lady Time collects as her ransom.
The grand parents were always a treat for me in the earlier years. I remember not really knowing how I was connected to them, just a jolly foursome I liked to visit. I turned to my folks one day and asked them whom their parents were. My mother laughed the indulgent laugh of a mother and said, “Why Mbuya and Sekuru of course, and Daddy’s parents are Gogo and Khulu. Oh! My young mind exclaimed. “It makes sense now, you look like them”. They immediately rose on my importance scale. It was just these others who sort of hung around trying to tell me what to and what not to do that got on my nerves. Authority was all the rage and us lower echelons, by virtue of our young age, were shunted into obscurity at family gatherings. Mind you if you still couldn’t walk and talk, you were excused because you were still cute enough for hugs and kisses.
There were two sets of cousins, my dad’s side and my mother’s, broken down into various subcultures ranging from those who had siblings (all of them) and those who went to government schools (some of them). Mixing with my siblinged and or government schooled cousins, was an odd fusion of excitement and dread. In the 80’s the differences weren’t so apparent, it was mostly my only child status that drew attention from time to time. Throughout my life I had always heard, “Only child! You must be spoiled”, in a tone that suggested I was a sinner. Followed by “What is it like to be an only child?” I learned to respond by saying “It’s the only life I know.”
.Seeing as school occupied most of my day, so my personality took shape, drawing from my most immediate reality. My accent became more refined (white) and I discovered that people ate sandwiches at lunchtime! I know it sounds strange but I thought it was the craziest thing ever. I was 6 years old at the time. I knew that at break time, which was around half past ten to eleven, people ate sandwiches, but lunchtime was a full on meal where I came from, just like supper. I remember regaling my parents with this wonderment and insisting that my lunchtime meal should consist of sandwiches as opposed to Sadza and meat with vegetables.
The downside of this is that the older I grew, the less I spoke in my mother tongue. Only in Zimbabwe is someone laughed at for not being able to speak English properly. Pronunciation was key so if you mis- said a word you could be sure you would be the running joke for that moment. The funny thing is that the pressure and the laughs were from other black kids. Ndebele lessons where instructed by a white lady who didn’t really speak the language well. There were certain words she couldn’t pronounciate properly, and when I once tried to correct her, I was scolded and told that with all certainty her way was the right way! What an identity minefield!
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