BULAWAYO – Last week, Zenzele Ndebele premiered a new documentary at the Intwasa Arts Festival. It is about Gukurahundi, the code name used by Zimbabwe’s security forces for the operation in which they massacred thousands of Ndebele people in the 1980s.
It is the Shona word for “the early rain that washes away the chaff from the wheat”.
On the Monday before the showing, the Zimbabwean police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) invited him to “discuss” the documentary.
In fact, it demanded to see the film before its release. He refused.
He had people following him and others threatened him over the phone and in text messages. He had to go to South Africa until the day of the premiere to be safe.
Meanwhile, the CID called in Raisedon Baya, the director of the festival, in an apparent bid to intimidate him against screening the film.
Despite the threats, the film was shown as planned. There wasn’t one dry eye in the cinema as we listened to a woman tell the story of the boy whose corpse was delivered to his parents in the dead of the night. She said his body was thrown at them, his head severed. They were ordered to bury him before sunrise so that people wouldn’t know about it. She said they buried him like a dog.
I saw grown men cry when another woman said soldiers would make them sleep at the camp with them, raping them for seven nights. They would make them go home to their husbands to bathe in the mornings, and order them to return each night.
My heart broke for her. It broke for her husband, and for their marriage that did not, could not, survive that.
I spoke to Ndebele after the premiere and this is what he had to say: “For many years we were told lies about what happened during Gukurahundi … This was a clear genocide and Zanu PF should be ashamed.”
Several months ago, I wrote about Gukurahundi — about growing up as a young Ndebele woman in the shadow of a genocide; about how, even decades later, that shadow continues to affect the way in which the Ndebele and the Shona relate to each other; about how it dictates who my family considers an acceptable match for me.
When I told my relatives what I was writing about they were terrified. They begged me to write about other things. They sent people to talk to me. Offered to help me with other story ideas. Think about your children. Think about us. We are proud of your writing, Mamo, and we will support you. Just, please, do not write about that.
Stop trying to be a hero because what use is a dead hero to us. We love you. Stay away from it.
It. That. We are still too scared to even say its name. I wanted to scream at them: “Mention it by name, dammit!” I wanted to shout: “G-U-K-U-R-A-H-U-N-D-I! Say it!”
Shake them into a reaction. Force them to talk about it. But I bit my lip, even though I kept on writing. Gukurahundi has destabilised my family enough.
My great-uncle had no teeth and was sterile. Despite his cheerful nature, he was a troubled alcoholic with nothing to his name. At some point he was married but his wife left him.
Everyone handled him with kid gloves. My grandparents were like surrogate parents to him. He ate all his meals at their home. I suspect our parents clothed him. When I think of it now, he was what would be called, in another context, a failure. But nobody treated him as such.
When we asked why Khulu had no teeth, we were threatened with beatings. But children hear things. I come from Matopo. Our home is within 20km of the infamous Bhalagwe concentration camp. We pieced together over the years that he was one of the survivors. I do not know whether he ever told anyone what actually happened there.
We gathered he must have been tortured. That’s why he had no teeth. His childlessness was rumoured to have been because of some form of genital mutilation.
Apparently beatings at Bhalagwe would focus on genitalia. In some cases it is said testicles would be bound in rubber strips and then beaten. I heard some men were given electric shocks to the testicles. Crushing testicles was another technique.
We don’t know exactly what happened to my great-uncle. We can only suspect.
Even if Zimbabwe prefers not to speak Gukurahundi’s name, no one has forgotten. You saw it in the outcry, a few weeks ago, when a new local councillor in Bulawayo decided to take his oath of office in Shona instead of English. You see it in the calls to boycott Pick n Pay and KFC for employing too many Shona staff in Bulawayo.
I saw it, too, when I was fired from my job at a publisher for writing about Gukurahundi.
We cannot bury our past. We cannot forget. The wounds are still raw and they threaten to tear Zimbabwe apart.
Say it with me: G-U-K-U-R-A-H-U-N-D-I. Only then can we start to talk about how to move on.