They took the boy off the farm, from under the endless African skies and sent him to Europe, to fight for the land his father had left, more than twenty years before. They swapped the dry dusty vastness for the trenches, the mud, stench. Bombs and gas. The boy watched in horror as friends were blown to smithereens, or died screaming, hopelessly pushing entrails into the tattered skin that in the morning had been a young man’s muscular stomach.
He watched his officer, armed only with a pistol jump up, out of the trench and race across the battlefield. He watched the officer drop, saw his mates scythed by machine gun bullets or vaporised by an unlucky bomb.
They sent a new officer and he went the way of the first. In death, his leggings and leather belt held no authority. Didn’t protect him against the enemy. On the other side of the barbed wire across no man’s land, the same was happening.
They sent him home after the peace, back to build a new country. Fresh from the horrors, he could farm no longer. No longer could he breed cattle to kill. Goats. He had seen enough death. He had seen the light fade in too many eyes. His brothers were patient, kind. They had been sent to North Africa, to the deserts, to the dry dust and the heat.
His brothers heard our hero cry in the night, watched him run away, sobbing when it was time to kill the goats or pigs, or send their oxen to the railhead. He eventually ran to an old man who lived on the outskirts of the farm. A wizened almost blind man, who ate little, farmed a patch of maize and kept a few goats for milk. His brothers sent food, occasionally newspapers, which our hero read before the Mdala used them for smoking.
The African bush heals, the music of the birds, the sounds of thunder. Slowly life returned to him. He began to see goodness around him, hope for the future. The great depression passed him by. He didn’t need much. He had water to drink from the river, soured milk from his goats. When the old man died, our hero remained in the mud hut, his goats his only companions. He tended his tiny field, sat for hours under the eaves of his hut. His elder brothers brought his nephews to visit him although their wives spoke of him as mad. He loved to see the boys, full of life: exuberant, enthusiastic. He could see himself reflected in their youth, and it helped him heal.
Out there in the heart of Matabeleland, with only the few newspapers his brothers dropped off for him, he saw war looming once again, long before anyone else.
His nephews sat wide eyed and open mouthed the day he arrived at the homestead; his old home. It was the first time he had stepped onto the veranda of his birth, in more than twenty years. The exuberant young men took in this uncle of theirs, with his wild grey hair and long shaggy beard. His bare feet. They sat open-mouthed as he ranted and raved, foretold death, destruction. He tried to tell them about the horrors of war, warned them not to be sucked into someone else’s fight. His brother’s wives complained and defeated, he went back to live in his hut.
Our hero cried when he heard the news of their deaths. In Italy, over the skies of Germany. He retreated into his hut unable to eat, or comprehend the waste. He sat day after day, his hands over his head, rocking from side to side. He couldn’t picture them, young and happy, racing through the long grass to visit him. He could only see them face down in the mud. Rotting on the beaches.
His mind floated away from him, reluctant to adjust to the reality of his new view of humanity. His brain ranged around and around but could settle on no possible reason for the destruction he had witnessed; that had visited his family once again. He lived among peaceful people. Why would they suddenly turn on their neighbour, kill them in the most barbarous fashion?
Our hero is highly intelligent, but ignorant. Unworldly, the kindly would say. He could not know that his generation, back in his father’s land had been growing restless, intent on changing the status quo. If they no longer walked this earth, they would no longer be restless ‘they’ said. He could not know that wars make a whole new set of rules, new money. Wars destroy property rights and allow it to be reallocated. Each time property is allocated anew, taken from the old owners, more can be channeled in a particular direction. He could never believe humans could sit down and plot destruction and human misery.
When war came to his own country, he refused to pick up arms and refused to leave his hut. If someone wanted to kill him, he said, then so be it. The men from both sides passed him by and he continued to live, on one end of his brother’s vast ranch in the heart of Matabeleland. His twin huts, alone in the centre of a clearing. He still collected his water from a small stream, grew a few scraggly plants in the field nearby.
Into this tiny clearing, two huts and a maze stook, one day walks a small boy and his friend. The child doesn’t speak much, but like our hero, speech does not denote a lack of intelligence. The child wears no shoes, carries a diminutive axe, to match his friend’s. His bottom lip sticks out rather and his large brown eyes are framed by thick eyelashes. He doesn’t find our hero’s wild blue eyes scary, nor his tangled beard, dirty. With no shoes on his own feet, he finds nothing strange about this old man sitting under the eaves of his hut, apparently at peace.
The child visits the man many times over the years, until one holidays he arrives to find no goats, the soil untilled and the huts collapsing. Looking around, he realises it will soon revert to open grassland.
Recently, I ask the child, now a young man, where he intends to live when he qualifies. “Where there are no wars.”
Puzzled I ask him what he will do if he can’t avoid it. “You can always avoid it,” he tells me. “We all have choices, we just need to make the right one. I’ll not fight for them.”
“Yes, them. And ‘they’ are not the sum of humans or ‘the human condition,’ Mum. We should not shrug and say there have always been wars. ‘They’ are real. Real people who sit down together and plot the downfall of whole nations. All for power. We just have to try, each and every day, to avoid working for them. All the rules, wearing the right shoes, buying the right house, are all to distract us from seeing who they are.”
That child visiting our hero, year after year learned that living in the bush, in a mud hut, was not the way to go. That he would be unable to get to the bottom of the problem. He did learn however, that war, in any guise is horrific and to be avoided at all costs. That combatants on both sides fight to promote the ends of the same people. The boy learned what our hero refused to face: out there are men who have no compunction sending young boys off to die, or destroy entire economies in order to play their power games.
Our hero only managed to convince one boy to avoid war, encouraged him to search for the ‘why’ of war. With communication and trade with others; with the internet, that boy could reach hundreds. The reality is, like our hero above, he comes from Matabeleland, from a nearby cattle ranch. People bred there are not talkative, they don’t part with words easily…
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