The life and fate of Chitungwiza, it seems, is to forever skulk in the shadows cast by Harare’s miniature sky scrappers and lead-soaked fumes. Chitungwiza’s small-time status is undisputed; in official and semi-official literature, it is routinely referred to as Harare’s dormitory town, though it is populated by a million people. It is just 30km removed from Harare, although it seems doubly-detached; the ever present air of fatigue, inertia and desertion that now hangs over Harare is thicker and more toxic in Chitungwiza.
It was while on the way to Chitungwiza that I experienced one of the most literature affirming moments I’ve had in a long time. It was literature’s eureka moment, if you will, the football equivalent of which is hugging a stranger when your team eventually scores the winning goal in the last minute of extra time.
I had boarded a commuter minibus taxi and sat in the third or fourth row, two people to my left and someone else on my right. About the people on my left I don’t recall a thing; about the person on my right, I remember almost everything: sex, height, and the conversation we had.
I had hauled out of my satchel sheets of paper on which was printed “The World’s Longest-Held Prisoner,” a short story by Libyan writer Omar El-Keddi; the story is one of 140 short pieces of fiction submitted to the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing. Almost instantly I had become aware that I had company. The man to my right was staring intently at the sheets of paper in my hands. He meant it to be unobtrusive but his interest in the papers in my hands was obvious.
It could have been the startling title which caught his attention. Southern Africa has its fair share of famous political prisoners; there is Robert Mugabe; late nationalist Maurice Nyagumbo; and, most celebrated of them all, is, of course, St Nelson Mandela. (With the World Cup a few weeks away, the saint is now in heaven where he is probably pondering football tactics with St Luke. It goes without saying that he is putting on an Argentina shirt since his own team Bafana, perennial underachievers, didn’t make it to Brazil, but that’s a story for another day).
Or maybe it was the easy, unheralded way the story begins: “After failing his middle class exams, Saleh al-Shaybi decided to join the army. He saw his fellow villagers and men from the neighbouring villages return with new clothes, pockets filled with cash, wrists weighed down by watches, smoking cigarettes from full packs and lighting them with gold lighters. He decided to follow in their footsteps, and wrote down ‘please take me' on his application.”
Whenever I flipped a page, leaving my neighbour behind, he would remonstrate. After twenty or so minutes, in which I had turned a couple of papers, him always in tow, he took down the details of the story. He would go on the internet, he said, download it, and read it for his own pleasure and at his own pace…
Later, finding my way through the inertia of Chitungwiza, I pondered the communion I had partaken in with the stranger. Even though reading is a profoundly solitary exercise, this was the closest that we had come to exploding that piece of wisdom.