The Journey that Never Was
By Florence Kudakwashe Taruvinga (Zimbabwe)
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Tonderai turned and tossed around trying to get some sleep but none would come. The reed mat proved to be harder than any other night. It was ages before the rooster crowed and at that little sign of the crack of dawn, he leapt out of his tattered blankets and rucksack in hand, and he was out of the hut in a flash. He decided to bid farewell to his aged parents but later thought it was best not to disturb their sleep and with one final glance over the compound he made his way swiftly to the bus station.
Of the twenty years of his life Tonderai had never tasted a decent ride in a bus, car nor van let alone anything on four wheels. The only time he remembered having one was some five years back when a serious blow of malaria had struck him such that he had to be ferried to the nearest hospital which was ten kilometers away. Due to the dilapidated state of the road network, only a few buses risked taking that route so Tonderai albeit his illness he had to make the journey standing as the bus was loaded to above its carrying capacity. It was the load which made the bus wriggle like a snake as the driver tried to avoid the potholes and Tonderai was struggling to maintain his balance throughout the journey and never got the chance to savor the ride, which had left a charred taste in his mouth as if he had swallowed a tinful of charcoal, and hence he concluded that it had not been a nice ride although it remained a familiar ghost at the back of his mind as it was the only reminder of him taking a ride on the bus.
Tonderai envied his elder brother Garikai who worked and lived in the city of Harare, as a dispatch clerk at a large supermarket whose life had been transformed the moment he got that job. He would be home only during the Christmas holidays and Tonderai would look forward to hearing the juicy stories of Harare his brother would tell him. He would tell him about the traffic lights which changed color so that pedestrians ands motorists would take turns to cross the busy roads, about the buildings which almost touched heaven for they were very tall. He also told him that in Harare people did not have to fetch water as they took it from the taps right inside their homes. Food was prepared on smokeless stoves which used electricity while one was standing, unlike in the rural areas where they had to kneel or crouch down. At night, he was told it would be bright as the midday with the lights shining such that one could even pick a needle from the ground. Even at school those who were fortunate enough to visit their relatives over the school holidays had their story to tell about Harare. Tonderai wove all these figments with those from his brother and eventually came up with his own version of Harare. It was in this imagination that he found solace as he worked in his parents' fields with the sun scorching his bare back. It was also the last thing on his mind every night as he lay on his reed mat and drifted slowly into sleep.Tonderai`s imagination of Harare made him work harder at school as he believed good grades were his only gateway to the real Harare.
When the ‘O’Level results were finally out, Tonderai was beside himself with joy. He had passed all his subjects with flying colors and like his brother had always told him there was no better way of conquering Harare. He believed this was his kiss with his destiny. He could now feel the imagined Harare becoming a reality, and considering that his elder brother who was faring well had not done so well academically, Tonderai could feel himself destined for greater heights. He could see himself as a top notch lawyer in six years time. If wishes were horses, surely beggars would ride. Word was sent to Garikai so that Garakai could send some money for Tonderai`s bus fare. Whether it got to him or not only fate knew, for months rolled by without any word from Garikai. Tonderai felt brokenhearted and dream-shattered. He spent sleepless nights trying to figure out how best he could get to Harare but all was in vain. His life lost meaning and he became a moody social recluse unlike his former lively affable nature. He would just sit there like a beheaded statue and never talk to anyone, just staring blindly into space; neither did he touch his food for one good week. His parents, particularly his mother, felt cut to heart and opted to knock on the fellow villagers` doors seeking aid so that Tonderai could go in search of his fortune.
It was after three days of begging, pleading and even pledging to do any work in return and enduring all the venom her neighbors spat on her telling her that her boy should stop dreaming and face reality that for the first time that week Tonderai ate his food. After all, school does not pay lyrics the money for the fare finally sufficed. His mother then busied herself with the preparations for his journey. She packed everything that she thought would be of great help when Tonderai got to Harare, from roasted mice, peanuts, mufushwa, biltong, peanut butter and ground rice as well as malt flour. She even packed a packet of ground mealie meal and a bottle of fresh and sour milk. Tonderai also packed his only clothes decent to be worn in public which were comprised of pair of shorts which reached way above the knees and made walking a nightmare as well as his one and only threadbare shirt which had also seen better days. It was agreed that he would journey in a pair of khaki shorts and grey long sleeved shirt borrowed from his best friend Tarisai as well as his old school shoes from which his toes protruded, threatening to pop out. The clothes were to be sent back on the bus when he got to Harare as Tarisai would be unable to make any journey of a radius of more than five kilometers from his village until the return of his Sunday best attire. This would even mean missing the Sunday service at St Alouise Catholic where they both attended. It had taken a lot of begging ,coercion and bits of threatening for Tarisai to release the clothes to Tonderai and it was only the assurance that the clothes would be sent back which made him yield to his best friend’s demands. After all hadn’t they grown up together?
Tonderai got to the bus station just in time to see the bus zoom into sight in a cloud of dust and black smoke. It screeched to an abrupt halt and everyone scrambled aboard. Before any of the new entrants could find a seat, the bus roared into life and lurched into motion. A few feet were stepped on, and naturally a few harsh words were exchanged, as passengers bulldozed their way along the aisle. Tonderai had lady luck smiling on him as he managed to get a vacant seat before he even got to the middle of the bus and he gratefully threw himself onto it. This was it -he was riding into the future and nothing would stop him, nothing. He had grown up in abject poverty with barely enough of anything. If there was anyone who got to miss classes for unpaid fees it was Tonderai. If any family was so used to retiring for bed on empty stomachs it was theirs, and if there were any handouts to be given by the village it was to his family, but that won’t stop him from pursuing his dreams. He had endured enough and if anything he was stronger now and ready to face it all. Although his family had been ranked among the poorest in Shumba village, they led a contented life and enjoyed being together as a family and stuck out for each other. They had joy and would always be grateful for each day they got and if his parents had taught them anything, it was always to be grateful and praise God Almighty for the blessing of life, for no matter how much money one had (like his mother always used to say) they can never buy life. Such principles made Tonderai always carry a smile no matter the pain he would be going through. He used to cry himself to sleep when he missed classes, asking God why he had to be born into such a family, yet he always found solace in the love they had for him and he would end up praising God and thanking him for such wonderful parents.
God finally answered his prayers when one day he was called to the Deputy Headmaster’s office and, after being showered with praises for his hard work, was told that the school had realized his problem and from then on his school fees would be paid for by the school on condition that he would come in during the school holidays and weekends to perform caretaker duties. Tonderai was so grateful that he knelt on his feet and tears streamed down his face as he thanked the deputy head and promised that they will not regret this decision as he would surely make them proud. When his parents heard this they broke into dance and song, praising God, and ran round and round their courtyard with glee.
Now a firm shake on his shoulder brought him back to reality and he blankly gazed into the eyes of the conductor, hand outstretched asking for the fare. Everybody around him started fishing for money in readiness to pay. Tonderai felt for the money in his breast pocket where he remembered putting it but there was nothing. He stood up and fumbled with the back pockets of his shorts but they were empty save for his handkerchief. A cold chill crawled up his spine and his heart throbbed wildly against his weak fragile rib cage, threatening to leap out. The conductor bombarded him with a barrage of questions but Tonderai thought better of it and decided to concentrate on dealing with the matter at hand. He then took his canvas shoulder bag on his lap and started taking out all the things and putting them on the aisle. By now all eyes were on him. He could even feel some right at the back of his head. He felt his bladder go loose and a stream of liquid trickled down his legs. A series of thoughts bubbled in his mind as his body shook like a reed amidst a flooded river. He heard his mother’s voice telling him to put the fare where only he knew so it would be safe and he had done exactly that but now where was it? How could he be so stupid or was it just one of those mistakes. But how could he for his life, his future, his dreams were at stake here. He just had to convince the conductor that he would find the money. He was not a crook; he was honest and very hardworking as written on his reference letter from school. He opened his mouth to say this but words failed him he only let out a low croak from his throat.
The conductor told him in no uncertain terms that he was not giving anyone free rides and instructed him to get off the bus before risking his front teeth in the process. He said he had had enough of young crooks who feigned having lost their fare only to ride for free but today he would have none of it. Tonderai was now between a rock and a very hard place. He tried pleading with him but the pleas fell on deaf ears. He looked around for help but everyone seemed to be enjoying his ordeal. Tears streamed down his cooking oil smeared face but this brought no relief to his predicament. The bus was unceremoniously brought to a standstill and he was recklessly shoved onto the road. He hit the tarmac head first and a thousand stars exploded behind his closed eyes. The bus rumbled off leaving a thick bellowing cloud of smoke.
Tonderai struggled to stand up and his legs wobbled under him. The world spun before him and a host of voices spoke to him all at once. His legs felt jelly and he fell to the ground with a thud. A motorist either mistook him for an animal or he was simply going too fast to stop or avoid hitting him. Finally Tonderai let out a piercing scream that any railway engine would have been proud to produce, registering his departure from this world of the living.
By F Taruvinga