Chido Muchemwa, The Rotting of the Sun

When the news emerged that there was going to be a total eclipse of the sun on the 21st of June, 2001, Zimbabweans could talk of nothing else. There were feelings of trepidation and uncertainty at this solar event. Some clung to the science of the moon finding its way between the earth and the sun. Others thought the sun would vanish and reappear trailing Jesus’ chariot as he came down for the Final Judgment. Still others thought it signified a bad omen, a sign of worse things to come for Zimbabwe: less rain, less food, and more deaths from the scourge of AIDS.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤI was eleven, in grade six at a government primary school in one of the wealthier suburbs of Harare. I’d told each one of my classmates all the things I’d learned from my National Geographic about the rareness of full solar eclipses and just how lucky we were to have the opportunity to see one. They were not impressed. The school had hired a bus to head north, and my peers were much more excited about missing a day of class than the eclipse itself. They did not want to hear anything from “know-it-all” me.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤWhile all of Zimbabwe would be able to see at least a partial eclipse, the best viewing was in the northeast of the country, near the point where Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique meet. My classmates were headed to Mutoko, a small town ninety miles northeast of Harare, to see the eclipse. I was going further north with my family to Lower Guruve, where we would have the best view. I remember walking up nervously to my teacher’s desk to inform him of my upcoming absences—why had my mother insisted on making us stand out? My teacher struggled not to roll his eyes as I told him about our camping plans. I turned away from his desk and heard him mutter to himself, “Vanofunga kuti varungu.” They think they’re white.

 

My mother had been elected the first black and first female Chairman of the Geological Society of Zimbabwe that year. The society had organized the camping excursion. My parents, my sister, Val, and I, set out a full day later than the rest of our party. My mother borrowed a Toyota Hilux Hi Rider from work for the trip. I remember remarking that I loved being in such a high car because I could look down on people. It was chilly in Harare, but the further we drove away, the warmer it became as the eucalyptus, jacaranda, and pine trees of the city gave way to farmland and cattle ranches, then dry savannah grass, until we began our descent into the Zambezi Valley. Most of the land in the Valley is National Parks. The highway cuts through the valley, but the animals ignore the road. Twice we had to stop and wait as a bull elephant sauntered across, heading into the thick, tall Mnondo and Msasa trees.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤAt this age, I had a habit of carrying out parallel journeys in my head during road trips. On this one, I imagined myself as an aid worker for the UN headed towards remote Zimbabwe, in my big, white Land Cruiser, to save the poor people. When we turned off the highway onto a red dust road, I got more excited. This was the kind of road they always showed in pictures of humanitarian rescue projects, with the pretty blonde lady ladling out porridge to dark African children with swollen bellies. We didn’t see any other cars on that road. After ten kilometers, we began to pass small, rural homesteads. Shoeless children rushed across their yards to the edge of the road and waved. My mother enthusiastically waved back.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤ“Mother, why are you waving at those children?” I said. “They’re not your children.”

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤ“I know they’re not my children, but do you see how they beam when you wave back, like they’re surprised that anyone would? It’s such a small thing, but it makes them happy.”

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤAfter that, I started to wave at all the children too, imagining myself returning in ten or fifteen years to save them, though I wasn’t and still am not clear from what exactly I was saving them.

 

When we arrived at the campsite, we had to move quickly; weonly had an hour or so before the winter sun went down. The other campers had arranged their campsites roughly in a circle, but since we were latecomers, we were slightly set apart. This was the first camping experience for the entire family, and as we looked at the other campsites, we knew we were out of our depth. Fortunately, one of the national park guards, Lucky, offered to help us set up. He positively bounced as he jostled around. It was odd. In Harare, the young men didn’t pay any attention to a black person when there was a white person around. They grudgingly served black customers because they felt they didn’t tip as well as the whites. They called their white customers “Ma’am” or “Sir” but used familial titles for the rest. Yet here was Lucky helping us.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤLucky did his best, but he seemed to have much more enthusiasm than actual know-how. My mother had borrowed a tent from a workmate. It was an army-green, old-school field tent, so ragged that it looked like the Rhodesian forces might have used it during the Chimurenga War in the seventies. No one knew how to set it up, but after a half-hour struggle, the tent was finally righted. It looked like it mightfallonto itself if we coughed too hard, and clearly there was no way all four of us would fit inside. Our parents decided that Val and I would sleep in the car.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤLucky left once he had gone over fire safety protocol but not before giving us one last piece of advice: “If you hear some rustling behind those trees in the middle of the night, don’t worry. It’s just the elephants. Their salt lick is right behind there.”

 

We ate dinner in silence, subdued by the feeling of being outsiders. At the center of attention stood a large, twelve-man tent with three separate “bedrooms”. It was bright orange and the lights inside made it glow so that it looked like it came straight out of A Thousand and One Nights—I didn’t know that camping could be luxurious. My sister and I pretended to take a walk just so we could peep inside. We didn’t see much, but we noticed purple cushions on the floor. It looked like the kind of tent that a sheikh might give his favorite wife in his twenty-strong harem. And it must have had a magnetic pull around it, because all the other children in the campsite gathered outside the tent and played games.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤI couldn’t drum up the courage to join them. I just watched from a distance listening to their conversations. Who was I to join them? Most of their parents were expats from Australia, Switzerland, and Belgium, and the kids prattled away in their sophisticated accents, switching effortlessly between languages. I was fluent in both Shona and English, but it didn’t seem quite the same. They were all white except for one black boy. I admired his confidence, how he effortlessly mixed with them. But I acknowledged that he wasn’t like me; he was one of those private school kids, the ones who spoke with a British accent, and whose names were the only words of Shona they knew. He was like the rest of those kids: rich and worldly. I was just a silly girl from a government school. I remembered what my teacher had said, Vanofunga kuti varungu. Watching those children, I couldn’t imagine a parallel reality where we would ever be equals.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤIn 1890, the first group of English colonizers, led by Cecil John Rhodes, arrived in present-day Zimbabwe. Their rule lasted ninety years: ninety years in which they took the most fertile land for themselves and banished the natives to dry, overcrowded reservations; ninety years in which they taught the natives to serve. Ninety years.

‎ㅤㅤ‎ㅤㅤWhat is ninety years compared to the history of time? Nothing, really. Yet I, born a full ten years after the white minority surrendered its hold, ten years after Zimbabwe had cast off the name of Rhodes, I who had never known a Zimbabwe where I could be barred from public places because of my color, felt inferior to these foreigners. I found myself retreating whenever I met a white person. If I stood in line at the checkout and someone white appeared behind me, I felt compelled to let them through. Where had I learned that I was inferior? Where had I learned that I was less deserving? Where had I learned to feel shame?

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤVanofunga kuti varungu. That’s what my teacher had said. That’s what my classmates said about my obsessions with National Geographic and Harry Potter. That’s what my relatives said when my family went on holidays like this one. They think they’re white. We were occupying spaces that years of colonialism had taught were not for black people. We could express the desire to enter these spaces, but eventually we would be reminded that we didn’t belong there.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤWe had an early night. Val and I headed to the car and switched on the light so that we could retreat into our books, but I’d hardly finished a paragraph when my mother was knocking on the window.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤ“Do you want to broadcast to the whole world that you’re sleeping in the car? Turn off that light!”

 

At eleven in the morning, we set out for our viewing point at the top of Nyerume Hill. To minimize our environmental impact, we were encouraged to carpool. We only had space for one passenger in our car, and we were joined by a man from Mozambique. I was surprised that he was black. The first thing I had done when we got to the camping site was to locate all the black people in the vicinity. Aside from the one other black family, the only black people there were the park guards and domestics. Where had this man come from? It turned out he was at a camping site just a couple of kilometers away from us, but his group was heading out later, and he was worried that they might get there too late. So, he rode with us.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤI cannot remember the Mozambican’s name, but I remember his features very well. He was about six feet tall and muscular. He was dark, very dark. His hair was curly, curls tighter than mine. All the while, I watched him. An enigma. He wore tan safari clothes like some of the seasoned white campers, and those did not come cheap. Yet there was nothing remarkable about him. Aside from Zimbabwe, the only other country he had visited was Zambia, and he spoke with a heavy Mozambican accent. I watched him when we got to the top. I admired his quiet confidence; the white people didn’t seem to bother him. He seemed content all by himself. But I also resented him for choosing us to take him to the hill. I knew he’d only picked us because we were black too. Why couldn’the have picked someone else? Why did he have to highlight how black we were to these people? To my prejudiced Zimbabwean eyes, he was at the bottom of the food chain. He was dark, and I knew it was better to be light-skinned than dark. Even the very fact that he was Mozambican bothered me. People around me had always spoken of Mozambique in a disparaging, mocking tone. I had an uncle who used to boast about how our British whites had stuck around to become Zimbabweans after independence, but the Portuguese had left Mozambique in a huff, leaving the country to descend into a civil war and poverty. By picking us, the Mozambican highlighted the fact that we were much closer to poor black Mozambicans than we would ever be to sophisticated white expats.

 

My sister and I sat on the bonnet of the car. From the top of the hill, we could see down into the valley at the tall brown grass that stretched into the distance like an ocean. We watched antelope languidly crossing the savannah and I wondered if they knew what was about to happen, if their brains could process the madness of night in the middle of the day. For two hours, we watched the moon make slow progress across the sun. I stared through the special glasses that the Geological Society had provided us and listened to the conversations around me. Everyone in the group seemed so well travelled. They didn’t quote the National Geographic when they talked about eclipses. They talked about climbing the Andes and watching wildebeest in the Serengeti. I listened with envy, wishing I could do the same.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤ“It’s starting,” someone said.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤA shadow fell upon us, as if thick rain clouds had appeared in the sky. In a matter of seconds, darkness enveloped the earth, the temperature dropped, and there was a strong gust of wind. Everyone took off their glasses to witness the majesty of the scene. The moon appeared as a dark dome in the sky with a brilliant, blazing halo around it. The horizon burned orange like the dawn. We were silent. It was as if the earth had gasped at the sudden arrival of night in the middle of the afternoon and held its breath, waiting to see if the sun would return. I stood there mesmerized by the brilliance of the moon and sun, feeling as if I was at the heart of this cosmic event.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤKuora kwezuva, that’s what we call the eclipse, the rotting of the sun. The Shona people believe that the solar eclipse marks the ruin of the sun followed by a brilliant rebirth. I wonder what it was like centuries before, when afternoon suddenly became night in the land that is now called Zimbabwe, when darkness fell upon people herding their cattle, hunting antelope, suckling their babies. Young maidens fainting, children screaming, men flexing their muscles as if readying for battle––even though they weren’t sure against what––and old crones nodding knowingly in preparation for the new sun to emerge, marshaling in a new era. I wonder now if an eclipse occurred in the years leading up to the arrival of Cecil John Rhodes and his Pioneer Column, if an eclipse heralded this new world where the Shona learned to cower in their own land, keeping to their place beneath the white man.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤJust as suddenly as it had fallen, the darkness disappeared. The eclipse had lasted for three minutes and four seconds. We all blinked in the sudden bright light. The chatter returned, but I stayed quiet as I tried to adjust to this new post-eclipse world. Around me, people spoke excitedly about what they had just witnessed, but I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. It felt like the world should have changed greatly.

‎ㅤ‎ㅤㅤㅤAfter a few minutes, the five of us––my family and the Mozambican––returned to our car and headed back to the campsite. When we got there, the Mozambican thanked my father and then began his walk back to his campsite. I can see him now walking away, and I realize why I was fascinated by him: I couldn’t classify him. Even at eleven, I was aware that the hierarchy in Zimbabwe established itself on wealth and race. At school, I was at the top of the food chain, but surrounded by white people, I felt inferior. The Mozambican, so dark with his heavy accent, had managed to exist outside that hierarchy. It would be years until I learned that I could be like him. But in that moment, I satisfied myself by imagining that no one at school would know of my feelings of envy and inadequacy. All they would know was that I had seen the total eclipse of the sun from a better vantage point than them.

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