Ian Sanders learnt early, when life was perfect, change could only be for the worse. He ended junior school on a high, coming first in his class exams. Now he looked forward to senior school. When he grew up, he planned to be a hunter and write stories about his adventures. How lucky that he lived in such a wonderful country with its wildlife, the bush and the Victoria Falls. Yes, life was great, and to cap it all, it was his favourite time of the year, the wet season.
It rained all night, and the ground was damp. Thick, heavy clouds hung overhead, blotting out the sun. The air smelled fresh and full of oxygen. Twelve-year-old Ian loved these summer mornings that threatened rain. The weather was warm but not oppressive. The heavy clouds would temper the heat of the day. He was sure it would rain again in the mid to late afternoon. Ian liked to imagine the thunderous drumming of the rain on the corrugated iron roof of their house up on the farm. The louder, the better he liked it. He often walked in the downpour to feel the warm rain on his skin. If his clothes got soaked, it didn’t matter. They would soon dry out in this weather. The first rains signalled Christmas and the long, end-of-year school holidays, yet more reason to make it Ian’s favourite time of the year.
Ian gulped down a breakfast of tea, cereal, fried eggs and bacon, and now he was full of beans and raring to go. Today, he was going with his parents, Greg and Norma, to their farm on the Victoria Falls road, about an hour’s drive from Bulawayo. This didn’t happen too often these days because of the fuel shortages that plagued Zimbabwe. In the last couple of years of the Bush War, Greg had moved the family into town for security reasons. He would leave their house in Hillside early every Monday morning and ride out to the farm on his motorcycle. Norma knew to expect him home at six o’clock on Friday evening. Ian kept her company during the week, but she worried about Greg being all alone on the farm. ‘I’m not alone,’ he would say. ‘I have my workers to keep me company.’
It was a Sunday, but Greg needed to attend to urgent repairs to fences on the farm. It was three months since Norma and Ian were last there, but today they’d drive out in the old Toyota bakkie. Norma packed a picnic lunch and off they went.
A few churchgoers walked along the almost deserted city streets. They drove passed Northlea High School on the right and big single-storey houses on large blocks of land on the left, and soon the open road lay ahead.
Ian loved the car trips and enjoyed watching the grass and trees on the side of the road race past in a blur. Although he looked forward to visiting the farm, he always wished they could drive on farther to the Hwange National Park or the Victoria Falls.
All too soon, they turned off the main road onto the dirt road with its corrugations. Greg slowed the Toyota. ‘That’s funny. It looks like our cows are on the road.’ He hooted, and the cattle turned and set off back to the farm gate.
Ian jumped out of the bakkie and chased the cows, shouting to make them go faster.
‘The gate’s open,’ said Norma.
‘That’s strange,’ said Greg, ‘I’ve never known the boys to be careless.’
The boys Greg referred to were the seven good, long-serving, black workers who helped tend the cattle and do the heavy work. Their families lived with them on the farm, and the women cared for the maize crop and lucerne field. The men, women and children made up a vibrant little community in their village at one end of the property.
When Greg arrived, one or two workers would always come to greet him. The old cook would boil water for tea. Today, there was no sign of anyone. It was silent, apart from the chirping of the birds. ‘I’m going to the village,’ said Greg. ‘Maybe they had a party last night and drank too much Chibuku.’
‘I’ll come,’ said Ian.
‘You two do that, and I’ll make tea.’
Greg and Ian set off for the village on foot, a walk of half a kilometre. The cattle seemed skittish. ‘It’s quiet,’ said Greg. ‘The women and children are always around even if the men have gone to the beer hall. And even if you can’t see them, you can hear them laughing and shouting to each other.’
Ian found the whole situation a little creepy, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising. ‘There, Dad, look there in the mealies; someone moved.’
Greg stared at the area where Ian pointed. Cautiously, he stepped into the mealie field, and suddenly, a black face with the whites of wide eyes appeared before him. The man looked terrified. ‘Andrew, what are you doing here? Where is everyone?’
The man trembled and struggled to speak. ‘They have gone Baas.’
‘Gone! Gone where?’
‘The soldiers took them, Sah.’
‘The ones with the red hats took them, Baas.’
‘You mean the red berets?’
‘When did they take them?’
‘They took them last night, Baas, when it was getting dark.’
Greg knew it was the Gukurahundi—the notorious Fifth Brigade that reported to the Prime Minister’s office. ‘Why the hell would they come here? What about the women and children?’
‘They are all gone, Baas. But Jacob and his wife are in their hut.’
Jacob, the boss boy, managed the farm when Greg wasn’t there. Greg ran to the hut and called out through the open doorway. There was no reply. He peered into the dark room. A bundle of cloth lay on the floor. Greg gasped when he realised it was Jacob’s wife, Mary. A deep gash across her head showed the white bone of the skull. Greg’s eyes adjusted to the dark, and he saw Jacob sitting on a stool against the far wall. He looked to be in shock with his eyes wide open. ‘Jacob, are you OK?’ There was no response. Greg crossed the floor to him but stepped back. A gaping wound ran across Jacob’s throat. Greg turned and caught Ian staring open-mouthed at the bodies. It was not a sight for a twelve-year-old boy.
Jacob and Mary treated Ian as one of their own. Ian loved them. They taught him Ndebele and gave him food when he visited the village. At the farm, Ian followed Jacob everywhere. Sometimes he played with Jacob’s son and two daughters and the other village children.
Andrew emerged from the mealie field and waited outside the hut for Greg. He’d hidden in the field when the truck with the soldiers arrived. Everyone knew the fearsome reputation of the Fifth Brigade. The screaming and shouting at the village terrified Andrew, and he hid all night amongst the mealies. When he heard Greg’s bakkie, he feared the soldiers were returning.
Still single, Andrew was lucky. He’d not lost family in the incident. Two of Greg’s men were away visiting their parents on the Christmas break. They’d have lost their wives and children. Greg’s old cook and the two other farm hands were missing. He assumed the Fifth Brigade took them. Jacob and his wife were dead. They and the old cook worked for Greg’s parents, and he’d known them his whole life.
Greg phoned the police, and they surprised him with their prompt arrival. Andrew and Greg gave accounts of what had taken place. The police assured Greg they’d do everything possible to find the missing people. Greg felt shattered. He knew the police wouldn’t cross the Fifth Brigade, and he did not expect to see his missing people again. His poor workers deserved better, but Greg was sure they would have already met their fate somewhere out in the bush. Why would the Fifth Brigade come here? Could it have been a loose word at the beer hall, or was it by chance? Did the Fifth Brigade need a reason?
An ambulance came to remove Jacob and Mary’s bodies, and soon after it drove off, the police left. An eerie silence fell over the farm. The family packed their things and jumped in the bakkie to head for home. Greg left Andrew to tidy up and promised to return the next morning. ‘I don’t envy Andrew all alone out here,’ said Norma.
At the farm gate, Greg stopped, and Ian got out and closed the gate and jumped back in the bakkie and slammed the door. Greg pushed down on the accelerator, trying to reach a speed high enough to reduce the bone-jarring effect of the corrugated dirt road. But now the road was wet from the rain, and he needed to be careful. Halfway to the main road, a lorry appeared in the distance. It was approaching fast. Greg moved over to the left to allow it room to pass, but as it came barrelling down the centre of the road, it was clear it wouldn’t move over to its side. The lorry hurtled straight towards them.
‘Look out!’ Norma shouted. ‘He’s not pulling over.’ Greg slammed on the brakes and pulled the steering wheel to the left, a little harder than he intended. The bakkie shuddered to a halt in the shallow ditch that ran alongside the road.
‘You bloody idiots!’ Greg shouted. As the lorry passed Greg saw the red berets of the soldiers sitting in the back of the lorry. They shouted and shook their fists as they sped past. ‘It’s the Fifth Brigade. Hell, I hope they’re not going back to our place. If they are, Andrew better make himself scarce in a hurry.’
‘They might be going to the Davidson’s farm,’ said Norma. ‘There’s nothing else down this road. It’s lucky they’re away on holiday.’
‘We’re not sticking around to find out,’ said Greg, as he eased the bakkie forward. But in the muddy ditch, the tyres slipped, and the vehicle slewed to one side. Greg tried again, but the tyres could find no purchase and the wheels spun.
‘Be careful,’ said Norma, ‘the ditch gets deeper in front of us. We’ll get stuck.’
‘Yes, c’mon, Dad, let’s go before they come back.’
‘Take it easy, Son. Let me sort it out.’ Greg put the bakkie in reverse and gently depressed the accelerator. The wheels spun before gripping, but slowly the bakkie inched back, slipping a little in the mud and then gripping a little. Slowly, slowly the bakkie backed out of the shallow ditch. They all breathed a sigh of relief when they were back on the corrugated dirt road.
The afternoon storm that Ian looked forward to now seemed so gloomy on the journey home. The realities of life in Zimbabwe closed in as they drove in silence back to Bulawayo.
That day, the blood and the rain washed away Ian’s childhood innocence.
Greg’s thoughts turned to taking the family to a safer place to live, somewhere far from the madness. He realised Zimbabwe held no long-term future for the whites.