The bus ride to town from the village only takes an hour, but it is a bumpy one. Each time I start dozing off, I am cajoled back to reality as the bus hits another bump. The road is very bad, and it does not help that it is the rainy season. It has been like this for as far as I can remember, and each new village counsellor that comes into power promises to ensure that the road will be tarred, but we know now that all those are empty promises. It gets better during autumn and winter, when the villagers work on the road as part of the food for work program which was introduced by the American donors. But in summer, the rain washes away all the gravel, and erosion leaves potholes big enough for one to grow a small garden.
The bus is a full house today. I was lucky to get a seat. It must be because it’s a Monday. Some villagers who spent the weekend at home are returning to town where they work from Monday to Friday. There are also several mothers with babies. It must be baby clinic day, and they are on their way to the mine clinic. The bus is a melting point of smells and sounds. There is the smell of cooked maize which many are going to sell at the town market, and there is the smell of boiled eggs. There is the smell of baby powder and there is also the smell of armpits and dirty shoes.
I relax when the bus reaches the mining area, where the road is tarred and well maintained. The white miners tarred the road from the town only up to their mines and did not bother expanding the good deed to the village. I clutch my rucksack and plastic bag in one hand, and the other hand holds on tightly to the rail of the seat in front of me. I don’t want a repeat of that embarrassing episode when I found myself on the floor of the bus when the driver hit a sharp turn. It did not help that on that day I had been carrying a pot of amasi which I was going to deliver to my younger brother, Ndumiso, who works at the town council offices. I quickly dismiss that uncomfortable memory and start thinking of my mission for the day.
We arrive in town early enough for me to get a spot close to the front of the queue at the registrar’s office, but first I must rush to the public toilet because I could urinate on myself any minute now. I can never get used to these town toilets, I am more comfortable squatting over a pit latrine, but I have no choice, do I? I climb on the toilet seat and squat uncomfortably, tightly holding my long skirt around my waist because I don’t want it to get wet with urine. Once I’m done with my business, I wet my small towel and wipe my face and armpits. My mother always taught me that a woman’s armpits must never have an odor, and today I am visiting offices of very important people, so I must look my best. I adjust my doek and make my way to the offices.
The walk from the bus rank to the registrar’s office is fascinating. There are scores of people walking from the high density residential areas on their way to work in the town center. They all came from the different villages scattered in the district, seeking for greener pastures. There is lot of noise, with taxis hooting and touts shouting while hanging from the windows of the same taxis. I could never live in town, it all seems chaotic and scares me a little. I strike a conversation with a fellow walker, who is also on her way to work. She is very chatty, and I barely get two words in.
“I must not be late for work, let’s walk faster. My mlungu is very strict. But as for the birth certificate, you will get it. It’s not a problem at all. But why didn’t you get it when the child was born? Anyway, I have to turn left here, just keep walking straight and you will see the office, you won’t miss it, it has a big flag hanging next to the gate”
And with that she takes a left and leaves me to my thoughts. I wonder why she felt the need to give me directions to the office. I shrug internally and walk even faster, because I feel there is a suspicious looking teenager following me. I don’t trust these town boys, they are pickpockets, and I am not about to lose my return bus fare.
I am determined to get a birth certificate for Nyembezi today. At 7.30am, one of the registrar employees appears and starts shouting instructions. He is a short, skinny man who should probably never find himself in a fist fight, because he would lose. Even I, as a woman, could take him on and beat him into a pulp. I decide then to refer to him as Cigo.
Cigo is rude and shouts out instructions as though he is talking to a group of two-year olds. The queue is made up of mostly women, and no one dares challenge him. We move according to his command.
“ID’s, door number 6!”
“Passports, if you don’t have an ID, just go back home! Or join the ID queue!”
“Birth certificates! I hope both parents are here! Door number 10!”
My heart skips a beat at the last announcement. Nyembezi does not have a father. But then I remember that this should not be a problem because her father died. Surely, they can’t expect me to produce a corpse? They will understand and give me the birth certificate.
I move quickly to join the queue for door number ten, and I am in luck because I am number seventeen in the queue. A young woman starts inspecting our documents. For each person she checks if there are ID copies for both parents, and if the parents are married. I see a few people leaving the queue with disappointed looks. When she is now on number twelve, I hear her saying,
“Mama, you are not married to the father of the child, so it does not matter that you have his ID, we want him hear. Go back home and bring him with you”
“We are married, he paid lobola, we live together, we have three children”
“Do you have a marriage certificate for this marriage that you speak of? And why are you using a different surname to his? Mama, don’t waste my time. Go and bring your so-called husband if you want birth certificates for your children”
I am now convinced that one of the requirements for getting a job here is rudeness, first it was Cigo, now it’s Nswintila!
The woman who is being addressed is obviously unhappy, but there is nothing she can do, so she leaves the queue, disappointed that she travelled all the way from her village for nothing. I wonder if maybe her husband had just refused to travel with her, or maybe there wasn’t enough bus fare for both of them?
Nswintila finally gets to me and asks for my documents, which I quickly hand over, my hand shivering. I’m scared of her. I’m scared that she will find something wrong and give me a tongue lashing.
“Mavis, where is the father of the child?” she barks
“He died” I say simply
“Do you have the death certificate?”
“No, we never got one”
“You never got a death certificate? How then did you bury him? Do you have a burial order?”
“No, we never buried him”
“Mavis, you think we are here to play? Who buried him then?”
“No one knows”
She looks at me as if I have lost my mind.
“I don’t understand what you mean Mavis. You will have to talk to Mr Dzingai inside. Stay in the queue”
This gives me hope, at least I can go inside and explain to Mr Dzingai. Mr Dzingai must be Nswintila’s boss then. I am sure he will understand my predicament.
At 10.00am, the door to the office closes. It’s tea time. I am now number three in the queue, so I am sure I will see Mr Dzingai before lunch. Because I am now closer, it means I can now sit on the bench in the corridor. I take out my water bottle from my plastic bag, together with my mealie cob which is wrapped in a newspaper and start eating. The family sitting next to me, seem to be looking strangely at my food. I think they are a town family because they look very clean and are eating fresh chips. The smell of the vinegar on the chips makes me even more hungry, and I quickly eat my maize and drink my water.
The office still doesn’t open at 10.30am, even though that is when tea time ends. There are disgruntled murmurs in the corridor, but they end when the door opens again at 10.45. The queue seems to move faster after that and I soon find myself sitting in front of Mr Dzingai. He takes my documents and inspects them without even greeting me.
“Mama, where is your husband” he asks sharply. He speaks a different language and I struggle to fully grasp what he is saying, but I understood that that he is asking about my husband.
“I left him at home” I respond nervously. What has Ndlovu to do with Nyembezi’s birth certificate?
“The father must be present for the birth certificate. Why didn’t he come?”
“He is not Nyembezi’s father. Nyembezi’s father is dead”
He looks at me briefly and I sense a bit of pity from him.
“Where is the father’s death certificate?”
“I don’t have one”
“Who has it? Does his family have it?”
“No, they don’t. I don’t know where his family is”
“Mama, your story makes no sense, where was he buried?”
“We never buried him” I say with no emotion. I stopped crying over this a long time ago.
“Mama, I don’t understand your story. Right now, your child does not exist! You need to get witnesses and go and make affidavits. Once that is done, come back here and we will give you a letter which you must take to Harare. Such complicated cases can only be handled in Harare!”
He says Harare, as though Harare is Canaan. I once travelled there when it was still Salisbury, but everything seemed confusing. I don’t think I could go back there by myself, I will have to find cousin Mehluli’s phone number and contact him. He works there and once a year he comes to the village and tells us of the tall buildings and fast Toyota Cressidas.
“I cannot help any further mama, next!” Mr Dzingai startles me back to the present.
He is still speaking that language, but I take it that I’ve been dismissed. I gather my documents and quietly walk out. I will go and look for Ndumiso. He will know what to do. I don’t understand why Mr Dzingai thinks Nyembezi does not exist. I gave birth to her in my grandmother’s kitchen, surrounded by three village grandmothers, and after that we went to the hospital. Nyembezi is my daughter. She exists! There are many Nyembezis in my village, whose parents died or disappeared during that dark, unspoken period. It’s a whole generation of Nyembezis.
I get to the town council offices before lunch, and I wait until lunch time before I can see Ndumiso. I narrate the morning’s events, and I can see him frothing with anger.
“First, they kill us, and then they deny our children their rights! How will Nyembezi sit her grade seven exams without a birth certificate?”
“I also don’t know, mnawami. We never buried her father, they buried him in a mass grave with twenty other bodies. Where do they expect us to get this death certificate?”
We sit there quietly for a few minutes. We are both thinking of that fateful night. I had grabbed Nyembezi and ran fast as I could to my family’s homestead, and we had watched from a distance as the Ndlovu home went up in flames. We were told the following morning that no one had been spared. All the Ndlovu brothers and their father had been shot and buried in the forest. Nyembezi no longer had a family. Her father, uncles and grandfather had died because they were suspected of harboring dissidents.
Ndumiso seems to finally have an idea.
“We need a lawyer. Magwaza is a lawyer. We will go and see him. He will help us with everything. We can pay him in installments. He helps many people from our village, and some pay by working in his father’s field. That’s what we will do. It’s late for today, so go back home, I will go and see him in the morning and then during the weekend I will come and tell you what he said”
I trust Ndumiso, he is clever and speaks English. I know he will speak to the lawyer and solve this problem. I make my way back to the bus rank, and board the bus back to the village. I still do not have a birth certificate for Nyembezi, but I have hope.
Written by Zwi for Amazwi.