Noe Valley Voice February 2012

Other Voices

Fiction, Poetry, Creative Nonfiction The Noe Valley Voice

In 2002, Virginia Barrett, an author, artist, and singer-songwriter, traveled to Africa to study a musical instrument popular among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Her goal was to play the mbira, a wooden soundboard with a series of metal keys mounted on top. “It’s beautiful if it hooks you,” says Barrett, who lives in “Baja Noe” on San Jose Avenue. She also wanted to learn the culture surrounding the mbira. Traditional Shona practice ancestor worship and use the mbira in all-night festivals to make contact with their ancestors and thus with God. During her six-month stay, Barrett studied with three teachers, each of whom proved inspirational. Her first teacher, for example, also took care of orphan children in Zimbabwe, a country then suffering from severe drought and food shortages. In 2004, Barrett returned for a second visit, and was reunited with one of her teachers and his family, including his wife and their children and grandchildren. Mbira Maker Blues: A Healing Journey to Zimbabwe (Studio Saraswati, 2010) is Barrett’s memoir of the three months she spent with Sekuru’s family. “One reader was so moved by the story, they made a donation to Tariro, a charity that raises funds for the education of orphaned girls in Zimbabwe,” said Barrett. The book is available at Phoenix Books on 24th Street or through Barrett’s website, www.virginiabarrett.comA portion of the proceeds from book sales goes to orphans and musicians in Zimbabwe. Here is an excerpt from Barrett’s memoir. 


Return to Zimbabwe

By Virginia Barrett

 My 18-month absence from my teacher’s home is most clearly marked by how the children have grown. Not only have they sprouted in height, they’ve increased in number, too. More grandchildren are now living here due to the recent death of a son and the current illness of a daughter—the once small children of Sekuru and Ambuya. 

Over the years, my teacher and his wife have lost four of their 10 children. Two more now live out of the country in order to earn a living, leaving Sekuru and Ambuya primarily responsible for the welfare of 11 grandchildren ranging in age from 4 to 20 years old, although their third daughter, Cynthia, contributes significantly to the household funds from her earnings in Amerika. She helped purchase this property in a quiet, residential suburb of Harare several years ago, when the white owners decided to quit the country and sell it cheap; without it, the family might not be together.

Subdued, Sekuru and I wait to share our reunion dinner. Seated at the head of the heavy, rectangular table that dominates the front room, he slowly moves his hands to his shoulders in mime of putting on a garment.

“I must wear my burdens like a jacket,” he tells me. “If I wear them like a jacket, then I do not think of them. They are just on me and I keep them there like that.”

Impressionable from a long day of travel and lack of sleep—an image flickers before my eyes. I see the jacket on him…earth-dyed and sturdy still but worn through in places, as if the pain of each child lost has eaten a hole in the fabric like hungry, sorrowful moths. Covering the area around the heart is a patch of brilliant gold cloth; from the center radiates a hand-stitched ndoro, the spiral pattern of a venerated shell, sewn with a pearl-blue thread the color of tears. My eyes focus and then blur briefly on the swirl emanating from the brilliant heart center of Sekuru, wearing his jacket of burdens, embellished so lovingly by grief.

In a flash he is seated diagonally to the left of me again, dressed in a purple T-shirt printed with the bold, hippy-like graphics of a former ZimFest in Oregon. Ambuya enters through the swinging door from the kitchen and places one more covered enamel pot on the table, making for a total of three, and then sits down in the seat across from me. She has already stood beside us holding the small washbasin of warm water first for her husband to clean his hands,vanogeza maoko, and then for me; the dishtowel we dried them with now lies folded between us. I don’t recall her eating at the table with us before, or any female family member for that matter, but maybe this, too, has changed in my absence.

I am perched politely in my seat, vacillating between a vague sense of returning home…dzoka, dzoka kumba, and feeling ungrounded by suddenly finding myself here again. Yes, I bought the ticket and got on the plane, but this second visit to an mbira master’s home lacks the buffer of other Western guests: no Rachel, no Jake, and especially no Sarah. Sarah was invaluable for translating Shona as well as explaining social norms to a person like me who often gets nervous with people, suffers from feeling awkward, and doesn’t always trust her instincts. Admittedly, too, I am not at ease being a guest in someone else’s house, whether paying or not; I am accustomed to living alone. As the only student/guest now, I realize suddenly that all interactions with Sekuru and his family are entirely up to me. What if I fail somehow in connecting? What if I inadvertently offend?

Following Sekuru’s lead, from the largest pot I tentatively fill my plate with a small white pile of sadza, the cornmeal staple of Zimbabwe, and then take from the smallest two large spoonfuls of muriwo: salty cooked greens. It is polite, I seem to remember, to wait for the elders to start and then ask permission to begin by clapping your hands softly (palms cupped if you are a woman) and saying “pamusoroi,” but I notice Sekuru has not touched anything on his plate and Ambuya’s is empty still. I hesitate, unsure of what to do. Ambuya doesn’t speak English; she says something to Sekuru in Shona while glancing at me, then she pushes the medium-sized, covered, yellow enamel pot toward my plate.

“Ambuya is waiting for you to take the chicken,” he tells me. “They killed this today for you.” 

Like two heavy rocks thrown into a lake, my heart and appetite sink. My fears have been instantly realized! I panic about what to say. Of course they killed a chicken for me. It’s the customary way to welcome a guest. I forgot to remind them I don’t eat chicken, or any meat for that matter and here is Ambuya staring at me, ready to watch me seal our relationship by relishing her sacrifice and giving honor to her family. My eyes are wide with the shame of the outrageous faux pas I am about to ­commit.

“Sekuru…” I begin slowly, mustering my courage, “I’m so sorry, I forgot to remind you,” my voice sounds weirdly distant to my ears, “I don’t eat chicken, or meat. Do you remember, from the last time when I was here? I am a ­vegetarian.” 

I see his face fall with more than ­disappointment as he utters, “Oh…no, we forget.” He quietly translates to Ambuya what is going on, and her response, starting with “iwe,”sounds, to my ears, both annoyed and confused. I imagine she would like to ring my neck for being so rude. She exchanges low-pitched, rapid words with her husband, none of which I understand, and then a momentary, heavy silence falls. My stomach knots involuntarily at the thought of ingesting something I haven’t touched in over 20 years, but I’m overwhelmed by the situation.

“Sekuru,” I venture meekly, my head bowed, “should I just eat it?”

He shakes his head no, but not without a look of deep regret for the insult to his wife. “If you do not eat huku, then you must leave it alone.”

I want to run from the table and start the whole dinner over, saving the chicken in the pen outside from being killed for my sake when I won’t even honor its life by eating it. I can’t imagine how I will right the offense I’ve caused to Ambuya after being in her home for less than a day.

“Sekuru,” I propose timidly, “please tell Ambuya I want her to eat my portion of the chicken.”

I presume he tells her this in the soothing tone he uses with his wife, but she does not look at me directly so I cannot tell if it makes any difference. I do note, however, that she doesn’t skimp as she begins to serve herself chicken from the yellow pot. Then, full plate in hand and saying one last thing to her husband, she leaves her seat and walks into the living room where her second daughter, Ruva, is eating. I’m convinced that my chicken-snubbing has brought about her exit from the table, even when I know that traditional Shona women do not eat with their men but after serving them, go eat instead with their daughters, young children, or other women in the family. Numb from the shock of what has just transpired, I sit as if in isolation like an awkward, muddled murungu (white person). Through my mind runs a whirlwind debate about personal ethics. I’m a vegetarian for spiritual and ecological reasons; it’s not a whim. If you do something against your ideals to please someone or to follow a foreign custom, are you offending your higher Self? Or contrarily, by not doing it, are you just being selfish? Sekuru notices I am not touching my food and seems to read my thoughts.

“You know,” he tells me gently, “my spirits, they tell me not to eat fish and so I do not touch this anymore. I do not eat food cooked the day before either. Ambuya, she knows this about me and she understands. We just forget this time. Eat now, no worries… Ambuya, she is all right.”

His words flood me with warm relief and I remember now how Sekuru innately puts people at ease. He is one of the main reasons I have returned to Zimbabwe—to study mbira with him and to be in his presence more: dzoka, dzoka kumba…come back, come back home.


Reprinted with author’s permission from Mbira Maker Blues: A Healing Journey to Zimbabwe,by Virginia Barrett (Studio Saraswati, San Francisco, 2010).


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