While studying Edgar Allan Poe’s art of short story writing in “The Philosophy of Composition”, I was attracted to how Poe believed that the unique intention of the short story artiste that culminates in a unique effect within a pre-established design requires what we can call close circumscription of space.
This means the action must take place in a restricted space, or the characters should not stray from where the action is taking place. For Poe, such a closely circumscribed space could be the haunted “House of Usher”, or the oven (a good hint!).
Or if you cannot find an oven or a haunted house, you should conveniently tumble out of a balloon, or be swallowed up in an earthquake, or get stuck fast in a chimney! Such close circumscription of space turned the world of Poe’s stories into a nightmarish universe where love turns easily to vampirish and sadistic necrophilia.
His restricted spaces were meticulously decorated in such a way that the protagonist was separated from sequential time-space and surrendered to unfathomable terrors. The horrors of ever-closing space — of the sea becoming a maelstrom, instead of a spacious road to opportunities, of claustrophobic phenomena much like pits, walls, coffins, heavy masonry, vaults and mouldy houses that could fall on you any time — make an inventory of what Poe thought was a proper setting for a short story.
So when the narrator in Spiwe Mahachi-Harper’s “Tales from the Kombi: The Shattered Pattern of Life” (2016), finds herself hauled onto a kombi by rough hands, I pour myself a glass and psyche myself for the reincarnation of Poe’s self-destructive romanticism and abandonment and for an exhibition of his intense love for the grotesque. But Spiwe shatters my expectations with her ingenuity.
For a start, the kombi is not a creaking creature. In fact, the kombi is a place of safety, because the world outside has been reduced to the acrid smell of tear gas and frantic bodies jostling for a way out with the noses desperately flared out to trap precious whiffs of fresh air.
Harare’s caprices are difficult to understand. The sun rises and bathes the tallest buildings like Joina City in a golden hue that is breathtaking. Before the sun completes its majestic morning dance, the sounds of screeching cars and frantic voices, and the pungent smell of tear gas reduce Harare to a riotous din. The narrator finds herself in such a fix and only a kombi can provide safety for her.
It is from this kombi that stories radially flow, like streams from a mountain. The stories flow in all directions. Some flow to Gokwe, others to the Eastern Highlands.
There are also some that flow to the UK, while others flow thoughtfully around Harare. Some of the streams dry up because the waters evaporate into virtual spaces of Facebook and WhatsApp where they drown the citizens of these virtual spaces in floods of scandals only to deposit the bruised bodies of the victims on the banks of H-Metro. Some of the streams flow back in history, to a time, a place, a person. Have you ever missed these three — a time, a place, a person? Kombi Stories will show you how missing eats our minds.
One of the characters misses that time when rivers used to have mermaids some of which were legendary for dancing on the banks of the rivers at dawn, or for snatching nonentities and turning them into great heroes and heroines after many years of mysterious absences.
Even the memories of the sharp mupangara spikes, which used to embed themselves into our cracked and naked feet while herding cattle, even those memories make us fall in love with the past. Zvinhu zvaive zvichakanaka paya, we reminisce while staring into a past that has become so vast that we cannot gather it into manageable folds.
The present, when compared to the past, is uncertain and perilous. So some of the characters look at the past with longing. The moonlights of the past were intoxicating. The sunsets were magical. The grass was taller. The Sanyati River was enticing. But nowadays the mornings are bitterly cold. The grass is limp and sorrowful. The Sanyati is no longer an enticing seductress.
The mermaids dance no more. How many have experienced this longing for a past that is gone? How many have visited the village to be shocked that the Ndenda River has been reduced to a trickle?
How many have been shocked to discover that the laughter of grown up girls looking for firewood in the Chamavara Mountain no longer breaks the brooding silence of the Chiriga Mountain which sits to the East of the Chamavara? Such moments remind me of Charles Mungoshi’s poem, ‘If you don’t stay angry and bitter for too long.’
I miss the swish-swish of grazing cattle, and their acrobatic runs to the stream to drink water at midday. Many of us experience these nostalgic moments, but we fail to put words to our experiences.
Kombi Stories does that for us, and the poetic language which the characters use only serves to deepen this sense of being alienated from the present. It is as if Spiwe’s characters are saying, “The past was poetic”.
Another character who fascinates me in Kombi Stories is Big House. Her disposition reminds me of Lawino. She loses her husband to a city woman the same way Lawino loses Okol to Clementine. So, like Lawino, who calls her clansmen to come and witness the strange behaviour of her husband, Big House calls the passengers of the kombi:
“My kinsmen, when a husband looks at you and sees nothing, but a stone tied round his neck, it makes you feel worthless. You are a nuisance he struggles to tolerate. Words that come out of your mouth are like revolting maggots wriggling out of a heap of decaying manure (167).
If you have read “Song of Lawino”, the simplicity of this woman’s utterances will definitely remind you of Lawino. Her anguish, though expressed in simple poetry, is so deep that the cadaverous figure of her sick husband drooling like a baby on his mother’s lap makes us think: Maybe, Karma is real.
When he dies, we feel grief. We grieve for the mother whose whole life consisted of burying sons. As we grieve, the Somanje Brothers’ “Yangu Itsaona” (“I am Cursed”) plays at the back of our minds.
Kombi Stories touches on a lot of issues that Zimbabweans are experiencing now — prophetic movements, broken marriages, migration, political violence, corruption, power cuts, second-hand clothes (dzemubhero), teenage pregnancies, aborted dreams and social media.
All of these stories are narrated in a kombi. In that kombi, we go to England and back, and dare the seductive Sanyati to drown us. In that kombi, we dread the silence of the bush during the liberation struggle, a silence that was so loud that it yelled at us about dangers hidden in its folds. In that kombi, we come face to face with the sharp teeth of xenophobia, and we scuttle back home with our tails tucked between our shivering legs.
Some readers may, however, have issues with the poetic nature of the language that the default passengers of the kombi use. “Commuters do not speak like that,” a reader might say.
In fact, one might be tempted to want to listen carefully for Mahachi-Harper’s voice speaking through her characters.
But then we are looking at a country that has the best literacy rate in Africa! So for me, the characters are in their proper linguistic context. In fact, their poetic language is what lifts “Kombi Stories” from the typical African story whose characters are so simple-minded that one can see it in their language.
“Kombi Stories” is definitely a riveting read. It makes you want to listen, the next time you board a kombi, to those two loud-mouthed passengers sitting at the back while sharing a Supa. Maybe, one hopes, from those loud mouths rivers of stories might flow before trumpets are blown!