It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. Her grandparents’ rural homestead was still intact. The cluster of three-pole and mud huts had survived the test of time. Kundai’s reminiscing was drawn towards the heart of the smallholding, a circular kitchen with its thatched roof, black with soot where the smoke from the wood fire had swirled upwards and escaped from the open hearth. Opposite stood the square-shaped sleeping quarters with a sitting room, all under a corrugated iron roof held down in places by old tyres and logs. The two small granaries perched on the granite crop were still leaning precariously as if they would one day just slide down the slope into ruins. This was the place Kundai remembered as a child, staying under the watchful eye of her grandparents before her parents claimed her back to join her siblings in the city.
Whilst everything looked deceptively the same, the heart and soul of the place had long since gone when her grandparents passed on, a few years before. She didn't attend the funeral, and that vexed her soul. Kundai had at some point called this, her home, albeit for two years. Now it was occupied by tenant farmers who had no history related to the place.
Once overseas, Kundai couldn’t or hadn’t come back, even when her family wrote and told her that her grandparents were deteriorating in health. The excuses she gave seemed so futile now. First, it was her studies when she joined her prestigious university, which was such a major achievement, the first grandchild to attend further studies abroad. She remembered sending graduation photographs and wondered what her grandparents would make of it; the two of them having barely finished seven years of primary education.
Then she embarked on postgraduate work, supported by a scholarship. It was partly for the status and also to escape the pressures of having to look for work. Eventually, Kundai decided she couldn’t continue as a perpetual student. Even her parents questioned when she would start earning an income. There was also the small matter of not having a husband when all her age mates were getting married and talking of mortgages and babies. Kundai put off all these expectations, for as long as she could and finally succumbed to pressure from her aunts who wanted their brother’s daughter married so she could have someone in her old age.
The union didn’t last long. Her marriage which was not made in heaven, didn’t survive the seven-year itch. Her spouse and in-laws did not take long to decide that Kundai was too much to cope with; not traditional enough, too opinionated, a feminist-whatever that meant. At that juncture, she thought of going back home but decided against it. Some of her friends had shared stories of the struggle to fit in when they returned. So much had changed back home, with some unable to overcome the ‘has been' syndrome. So she stayed away and threw herself into climbing the corporate ladder, very successfully, while savouring the freedom to live life on her own terms.
After twenty-four years, her conscience told her that she would regret not spending time with ageing parents and her siblings before they became estranged. After all, no matter what, they were family.
The visit to the homestead transported her back to her childhood. A rusty skeleton of an old tractor was now covered in a veneer of dust and cobwebs. It had entertained Kundai for hours as she imagined herself ploughing fields before the coming of the rains. Everything had frozen in time except that the grandparents were now just memories. This trip, however, had been a must. She could now at least pay her respects and visit their last resting place; a makeshift communal graveyard near an anthill, beyond the gum tree plantation.
Kundai could not claim to have had a difficult childhood. Soon after marriage, her father left her mother with his extended family, to study in South Africa. He came back occasionally to check on his fledgeling family. His wife soon discovered that motherhood was not a task to be taken lightly, even though her in-laws were concerned with her welfare. Way back then, there were no qualms about sending young children to live with close relatives. So when Kundai was sent to stay with her grandparents, it was expected that she could cope with the separation during her formative years, with no adverse psychological effects. In hindsight, she realised she had been sent there to relieve the child care pressure on her parents and make way for her unborn siblings. She did not remember any deprivation, as there was a longing to have a grandchild around. Two mangy guard dogs which survived on scraps of leftover food were her best friends.
Before the rains, peasant farmers like her grandparents followed a seasonal ritual; leaving the homestead early, with a small parcel of food and drinking water. Through the scorching heat of the day, no one was expected to be idle when there was backbreaking work preparing the fields for planting. Each evening, the family would trudge home, exhausted with their hoes over their shoulders and the women balancing empty metal kango food containers precariously on their heads. The whole country would then wait for darkening skies to herald the coming rainy season.
With no one to play with, Kundai accompanied the adults daily, initially wanting to help them with her child-size hoe. When bored, she would sit under a shady tree, playing games of make-believe with her invisible friends and her old corn cob doll in a rag dress.
Tired of entertaining herself one day, in the unrelenting November sun, she asked to return home and play in the veranda where the cold cement floor would be a welcome relief from the ruthless heat.
‘There is no one at home. Why can’t you sit and play like you usually do under the tree? Do you want a drink of water?’ said Grandmother.
“No. I want to go home.”
''Who will look after you? You can’t wander around on your own. Bad people may be roaming about, waiting to snatch unsuspecting children.''
With the innocence of a child, Kundai set off home, “I am not afraid. I can run very fast, and I can scream, and you and the dogs will come and rescue me.”
Kundai followed the narrow well-worn path, past a woodlot of tall eucalyptus, past the orchard. The homestead was eerily quiet. Under the cold, rusty corrugated iron sheets of the veranda, Kundai became engrossed in her games. Her solace was shattered by a deep guttural, inhuman sound emanating from a rocky outcrop overlooking the homestead. A shadowy figure concealed in sackcloth appeared. All she could remember were her piercing screams as she sped off at break-neck speed, in a state of complete hysteria. Comfort eventually came from concealing herself tightly in her grandmother’s skirt. In between tears, she narrated the story about the binya (monster) which had tried to capture her.
From that day, she stayed in the fields, with everyone else. That childhood experience never left her sub-conscience. When older, she was told the bogeyman was her grandfather, who had played the prank. Such mixed memories kept the link with the homestead tenuous but alive, and that was all that mattered.