I shifted my weight from one foot to the other; the brittle tufts of yellowed grass rose and flattened like bundles of glass noodles in the patches beneath my slippers. I shouldn’t have been wearing slippers outside. We stood in a line looking into our shadows, or at the sun’s harsh, naked imprint on the dead lawn. It’s times like these you remember your shadow won’t always be around.
The couches to my right were being used as cushy, unchallenging jungle gyms by a couple of toddlers. They seemed to sense the low-hanging misery, but only as a brief distraction from the frivolous fun they found within the odd silence. Christmas decorations on a road sign. I stared into the stiff strands of grass. The garden had no real shade except for underneath the guttering in the roof where a few people stood, leaned, or sat.
The stillness entered and left my lungs in a muted cycle. We were in the middle of the lawn, next to the ash of last night’s bonfire and the fresh stacks of wood queuing for tonight’s. We had shaken the hands of all the family present and muttered our shared condolences. Words form but what is said is at times inaudible. I merely pushed out what came to mind as softly as I could — the tenderness is all that mattered, not the words. We stood, hands changing positions as if clasping for an expression that offered the most humility and respect to her spirit. Nothing felt appropriate.
In the silence and sun, I rekindled memories on the surface of lifeless mounds of grass. I felt others doing the same.
It’s October 2011 and I’m in a hotel in Durban, South Africa, for the Poetry Africa event. I’m excited to be performing alongside such amazing artists from around the world. On the opening night there’s a packed house, and the fire of the poets and musicians ripples in applause up the rows of the theatre. That night I witness one of Chiwoniso’s more beautiful performances in my memory. She plays the mbira (a Zimbabwean thumb piano about the size of a book) within a gourd (like a hollowed-out and varnished half pumpkin to house and amplify the instrument). From the moment she skims her thumbprint across the first slender metallic key, I feel goosebumps of pride and appreciation hoist the hairs on my forearm like sails. My fellow countrywoman and sister in the arts. Her voice knots the thread of serenity and purity with a thick fraying rope of struggle and passion.
I wrap my knuckles on the door of her hotel room, the curtains skirt an overcast afternoon. She smiles as she opens the door. Whenever I see her smile I see the child in her, who’s hidden my keys under the couch or broken an ornamental dish. We intend to perform a duet later in the week, and I choose my poem “Home” as the piece that she will add vocals and mbira to. I flip open my laptop and play her the words as she tinkers with rhythms on the instrument, skipping across combinations that don’t quite fit until she consistently recycles a set of notes that grow organically with the lyrics. When she plays, her dreadlocks sway over the gourd like the windswept branches of a weeping willow.
If Mother Earth had a wind chime on her porch, it would be Chiwoniso with an mbira.
On the evening of our performance, I welcome her onstage. I am grounded and humbled by her presence beside me. This backbone of my country’s artscape transforms a stage into a drumming circle of lowered tensions and the simple human purity of performance. Natural. Her chorus captures the piece perfectly, and she releases the essence of the poetry into the auditorium like floating lanterns.
I meet her backstage for a drink at the bar whilst one of the other artists is performing. She’s trying to drag me into a clapping and stomping class she has spontaneously started with a group of children she found wandering around the foyer. Choosing not to join in the disruption, I rather watch her amuse, interact, entertain, all the things she was born with and has spread across the globe with friends, fans, spellbound children, and reluctant adults.
A few days after gathering at the house on the day after her passing, we returned, no fence surrounding it, people clustered in groups on the dry lawn. We exchanged disbelief with more people that Chi touched, loved, and was loved by. The list of them is vast and the condolences shared from around the world weighed down this small garden. Conversation was slow and quiet, with the occasional smile or laugh recollecting her being. A song emanated from a group of predominantly older female relatives that signaled the hearse’s departure to her burial place in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. After we gathered in a semicircle around it, the vehicle shuffled over gravel and lawn and onto the potholed road, as her body left home for the last time.
A week has passed. Last night the arts community paid tribute to Chi’s life. A celebration with performances by some of the people she shared the stage with. Under the roof of the venue coursed thousands of memories of moments spent with Zimbabwe’s revolutionary songwriter and socialite. I’ve never seen so many artists line up to pay tribute in the only manner that seemed fitting.
Her teenage daughters stepped onto the stage with their stepsister and said goodbye in harmonies and mbira rhythms. “Go well mama,” they sung, their courage wrapping fingers around my heart and tear ducts, their cheeky smiles an infectious reminder of the family they come from. Chi divided her soul amongst the three of them for one final evening with an audience she had engraved her love and spirit onto so deeply and naturally. I watched, projecting memories on the stage and soaking up the gentle warmth of the legacy she left behind.