I started crying as we drove out of Polokwane, just as we turned into the N1 Highway heading to Johannesburg. My tears stung my eyelids and rather than easing, the pain I felt only intensified. The heater was on full blast to ward off the morning chill, as we cautiously drove into the 4am mist.
I hadn’t meant to cry. But once I started, I couldn’t stop. I tried to swallow the sobs, imperceptibly increasing the volume on the car radio and stiffly stared outside my window to conceal my weeping. Then it came. Waves of grief crashing down, an avalanche of memories, a collusion of regrets and a total collapse of composure. I cried so hard, thinking that perhaps crying as hard as I could might, perhaps, bring me relief.
I was heaving, gasping and choking with pain as my alarmed boyfriend turned to ask what was wrong. And his asking made it worse. His asking made the hurt seep deeper because to answer him – I needed to find words and there were no words to share my anguish. So I shook my head. He didn’t ask again until he had slowed down, gotten out of the lane and parked on the side of the road. We were not going anywhere until he got some answers.
I was crying because my uncle was dead. He was dead and he was never coming back and he was never going to know that I was finally going to do that PhD that I told him of all those years ago. I felt stupid to be crying over this. To say to my boyfriend I was crying over an uncle who had died over a year ago. It was so random. I had been ambushed by reminiscence.
I don’t really remember what day it was but I was 14 and watching one of my favorite TV shows when my uncle Graham (now late) came home with a stranger. I remember feeling annoyed because the standard operating procedure when visitors showed up was to excuse the elders by vacating the living room – which meant abandoning the TV as well. I remember greeting the stranger with an ill-concealed sulk on my face and walking off in a huff. Uncle Graham sternly called me back.
“Don’t you know who this is?” he asked. A question I greatly detested whenever presented with a total stranger whom I was expected to know. I said I didn’t know who the stranger was and tried to look ashamed of being ignorant because it occurred to me the stranger was likely a relative. Relatives generally did not like to not be known….
Uncle Graham scolded me (as was the appropriate response in such situations) for professing ignorance of a relative. “But a big girl you, how can you not know our relatives? You must know relatives,” he said before explaining the intricacies of the kinship we shared with this stranger. I couldn’t follow it because it took on the usual confusing litany that most convoluted family trees become when introductions have to be made – he is the what-what of so-and-so’s cousin’s uncle’s granny’s wife’s brother’s niece who is the sister to the wife of the nephew of the great-grandmother from our father’s side…..
That was the first day I met Paul Mambo, the first time I laid eyes on him. Until five years later, when I accompanied a friend to the Chronicle to place an advert. Whilst we waited in that long queue, I remembered that the man my uncle Graham once came home with worked in this building. And I don’t even know how I remembered. But I did.
Bored with standing in the queue, I walked towards the guards who manned the stairs to the newsrooms. “I would like to see Paul Mambo please,” I said, fervently hoping I had got the last name right.
“Do you have an appointment?” asked the guard. I admitted that I didn’t have an appointment and was about to walk off then turned back to say hesitantly “But if you tell him that the daughter of Dazzman Ndou is here, he will want to see me”. I was lying, of course. Because I really had no way of knowing whether or not he would want to see me on account of whose daughter I was – especially since my father was long dead. For all I knew, he wouldn’t even remember who Dazzman was.
I don’t even know why I persisted, even to the point of lying. But I did.
‘Khali ihahara nga u khutedzeliwa’ – a pot simmers only when you keep the fire going.
These are the words that got me to the University of Zimbabwe and spurred me on an academic path that has brought me to where I am – here and now. The words of Paul Mambo who made time in his busy schedule to see the daughter of a long-dead and distant relative on some random day in August of 2003.
I had not known then that Paul Mambo was a man of many words – who when given the opportunity to talk – grasped the opportunity with much gusto and exploited it to the fullest. So that day, what should have been an awkward, random and very brief meet-and-greet turned into a life-changing encounter. I had completed my A’Levels and had passed. I had applied to the University of Zimbabwe but had not gotten any response and my friend who had applied at the same time as me had gotten her acceptance letter the week before and left for college.
I assumed that I had not been accepted and was now racking my brain trying to figure out my next move. I had settled for temporary teaching and the plan was to secure a post in a rural school (where living costs would be minimal so I could save up and become self-sufficient). That was the extent of my vision at that point. Get into temporary teaching, earn some money and take care of myself.
It was Paul Mambo who totally dismissed this plan, insisted that I go to the University and make a follow-up on my application in person because ‘khali ihahara nga u khutedzeliwa’ by which he meant, one cannot simply quit but one must show persistence.
More importantly, he evoked the memory of my late father to drive his point home “Your father would have wanted you to go to school, so you must go to school and learn,” he said. I left that building with a changed mindset, fired up and determined where before I had resigned myself to the fate of temporary teaching and drifting with the currents of life.
There was a discussion on my Twitter TL this evening about how there is no career guidance in Zimbabwe and I was reminded of this man whose intervention changed the trajectory of my life. He is gone now and I miss him. I have many stories written about him that I have been meaning to post on my blog. But they are all incomplete. Because I always collapse into tears, the pain and the loss feels so raw.
But I cried my way through this one. Because his story deserves to be told, even if it is only through the telling of my own.
I miss him almost daily. Headlines usually are a trigger – the absurd, the outrageous, the downright insulting – whatever the content, I think of him and of how if he were still alive; I would call him and ask him what he thinks of the events unfolding in our country and the world at large.
Grief is such a weird thing. It hibernates then resurfaces to fell you with such potency and immobilize you with renewed pain.
Whenever I trace how I got here….I start by remembering that there was a man called Paul. He saved me.
May he rest in peace.
Ni awele ngamulalo editor vhanga vha usuvhelela. Mbilu yanga ingasifholi, ndidodzula nditshi nituvhela.