On Boats

By Geraldine Mukumbi. Geraldine is an aspiring writer and works as a teacher at an international high school. She lives in Ngezi, Zimbabwe. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

1.

I am 17 and I already know how patriarchy works.

I do not have the word “patriarchy” in my arsenal of words. There exists, at least in my head, no equivalent in Shona or Ndebele. But, I know that for my mother to allow me to make a decision, I need my uncle’s help.

I call Sekuru. Sekuru calls Mama.

“Let her go.” He tells her. “She will resent you if you do not allow her to take this opportunity.”

Three months later, I am on a bus braving the tenuous 1 124 km journey from Harare to Johannesburg. In my suitcase, I am carrying scholarship letters that say that I will study at a boarding school in the outskirts of what I will grow to call Jozi.

As the bus throttles towards the Beitbridge border post, I bite my lip and do not think back to Mama’s tears, Sisi’s hug and the few dollar bills Mukoma folded into my hands.

I block Baba’s “make us proud.” I block Mama’s “be careful, they do not like foreigners there.”

Instead, I focus on the opportunities ahead. Good teachers. World class education. Opportunities home will not give me.

I will be safe.

2.

When I graduate from an elite high school, I come back to my home country a shell of my former self. In my arsenal of words, I have added “saving the world. Global mindset. Decolonization.”

For my body, for my soul, I only have euphemisms.

“Headache. Tired. I dunno it hurts somewhere inside.”

When the insomnia hits, the headaches intensify. I stare quietly out of windows and withdraw into myself.

“Do you not like it at home?” Mama asks.

I shake my head. “I am happy to be back.”

After two months Mama is frustrated. She sends me to the hospital where the nurse tells me what I already know. That my blood pressure is too high and they do not offer medication for stress. Days later he sends his daughter to our house.

“I heard you came back after some time away.” She says. “I will be your friend.”

The tiredness does not go away. It recedes. But, for the year that I am home on a “gap year” I am safe.

3.

The acceptance letter does not arrive by mail because home is a small town in the middle of nowhere. Instead, the scholarship letters arrive via Baba’s email.

Mama is hesitant. “It is too far.”

Baba agrees, “but, it is your choice.”

I pack up again. This time I leave on my first 18 hour flight across an ocean. Mama cries again. Baba squeezes too tightly. Mukoma calls one last time to ask if I got the money. “I hear America is expensive.” Sisi puts on her biggest smile, “Pray often,” she says, as I head towards the immigration line.

America is not like it is on TV. I get an education. I go to class. I never drink open drinks or walk alone in the dark. Instead, I spend time in the library on the third floor with African fiction and stories about home.

In my arsenal of words, I add, “yearning. Double consciousness. A nervous condition.”

I call home every other week too. I say, “I miss you. I am doing my homework. I am staying safe.”

4.

It is the third year of university and I return home with a nose ring and a shaved head. Mama almost cries.

Baba still thinks I am in business school and I do not have the heart to tell him that I spend my days reading fiction and writing about gender. About class. About things that are not practical.

We are in the kitchen washing dishes when I ask Mama, “will you be upset if I dropped out of school and tried to “find myself?”’

I say “find myself” in English because there is no Shona or Ndebele equivalent. She laughs. “That’s rich people things. Kwete isu.”

I laugh along.

In my arsenal of words, I have “ imposter syndrome, code-switching, privilege.”

But, on breaks when I am home, I do not think in terms of theories. Everything is in full colour.

On most days I am safe.

5.

When I decide to tell Baba what I have actually been learning in university, I do it in a moving car. It is six months before graduation and we are driving from some place I do not remember. In my head, in my heart, I know if I do not say it now, I will never say it.

Baba is disappointed. “After all the sacrifices. Think about this country. Think mwanangu.”

I apologise. I am sorry, not for the decision but, because I know what he means. No one in Zimbabwe hires people who studied storytelling. And poetry. And critical race theory.

My heart breaks when he asks how I intend to survive this country that is always on the verge of collapsing into some version of hell.

I sigh. In my arsenal of words, I have “critical thinking, self-care, privilege.”

For a few days, Baba is angry. According to Mama, I told the truth eventually, our relationship is safe.

6.

It is October and I am trying to be an adult. On good days this involves teaching other people’s kids how to be creative. For our October assessment, we show students how to create a podcast.

For the class, my co-teacher asks about my travels. The places I have been. Was I never scared? Was I always welcomed?

In my arsenal of words, I have “xenophobia, racism, misogynoir.”

If I were the one asking the questions, I would have asked why boat exists. I would have said we are all running from something. Boats exist because we want better and those who love us want better for us.

In the evening Mukoma sends texts about home. Basic commodities are disappearing off the shelves. He describes the fuel lines. It is happening again. The country is falling apart.

I call Mama. She is well. I want to ask if the pharmacy still stocks her blood pressure medications but I cannot form the question. Instead, I ask about the weather. About cousins. We laugh.

She mentions briefly that home is on fire. Cups her hands in her face. We sigh at the same time. I mention that her afro looks beautiful. I admit that I am jealous of her hair.

After she hangs up to go to bed. I frantically search for a pair of warm winter socks. Home is on fire and I am trying to survive a European winter.

I am not safe.

7.

I am sitting in a café when a group of matching hoodies stop and smile at me.

“It is so rare to see melanated smiles in these parts.”

I smile and greet each of them in turn. Firm handshake with the right hand. The left hand gently touching the right forearm.

“You are definitely from Zimbabwe!” The older Ghanaian man with round glasses bellows. Everyone laughs. I have never met these strangers, but we warm up to each other quickly and exchange stories about home.

We share snippets of our journey away from home. About life. About what we do. The other people sipping on their coffee and chewing on their croissants seem slightly disturbed by the loud chatter. They frown and stare in our direction.

I am tempted to tell them the story about boats. About planes, about trains, about long bus rides. I want to tell them that when our parents put each of us on a boat towards some sort of better place they gave us provisions. Somewhere between our travelling documents, our work visas and warm clothes, they packed tools to survive.

In my little knapsack, my arsenal of words and things, my parents gave me a love for music, a sense of humour and a deep sense of culture that manifests in how I greet strangers in a café. I want to tell them that that is love. And that love keeps me safe.

13 comments on “On Boats

  1. Bright Gyamfi on

    Geraldine, this is a beautifully written. I truly enjoyed reading it. A very a compelling, touching, moving and powerful piece. I will share it with my friends, family, and students. Keep writing and inspiring us with your stories.

    Press on!

    Reply
  2. Keith Mundangepfupfu on

    “In my little knapsack, my arsenal of words and things, my parents gave me a love for music, a sense of humour and a deep sense of culture that manifests in how I greet strangers in a café. I want to tell them that that is love. And that love keeps me safe.”

    This rocked my whole world. Wagona! Thank you for your words.

    Reply
  3. Khaoula Morchid on

    This is an awesome piece Geraldine! Very well written and very touching!
    Thank you for sharing this journey and may that love always keep you safe.

    Reply
  4. Carlisia McCord on

    Geraldine, this is beautiful and succinct. The way you framed it all highlights the sweet parts that could have been lost. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Maria on

    Love this and you so much! Sending you a hug from afar. Know that we are proud of you and your writing. Powerfully descriptive and achingly hanunting.

    Reply
  6. Nana Kwame Adomako on

    Wow… My family just set me on a boat as well ….and your story is great piece. Glad I chance this at this moment. Keep up👍

    Reply
  7. Dede on

    Gerie this is absolutely beautiful! I love your voice and the care in which you share our inner most thoughts. Much love and keep writing 🙂

    Reply

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