We had been driving around for hours and I was beginning to lose hope. We had crisscrossed the same stretch of winding road between Mutare and Nyanga in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands all afternoon and although the rolling, forest covered mountains on each side of the snaking road made for a spectacular view, it was playing second fiddle to what I had really come to see – if only I could find it, of course. I was searching for something specific, something small not many people seemed to know about. I was searching for a house. Not just any house, the last house my parents lived in before they emigrated to Canada and the place where I spent my first few months on earth. It was more than that though. This house that I have no memory of, that I have never even seen a photo of, has, through years of fondly told stories and my own abstract imagination, become a personal legend. It has passed from the material realm into something much more significant, something symbolic almost bordering on spiritual. I guess I was not just searching for a house but searching for my past, for my family’s past, and in these vast mountains and dense forests, between the giant boulders and cascading waterfalls I seemed to have lost it.
The house had been part of a tiny logging community called Chingamwe Estates, just South of Nyanga National Park. It was here, within view of Mount Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest point and minutes away from Mtarazi Falls, one of Zimbabwe’s most picturesque sights, that my parents began their lives together as a young couple nearly 23 years ago. My dad, a millwright by trade, was the manager of the sawmill in Chingamwe and with his young wife and my newborn self by his side, managed to carve out a life there in the mountains among the towering pines, the sturdy Wattle and the sweet smelling Eucalyptus. I warmly recall, over the years, sitting at home in Canada listening wistfully to my parents reminisce about the beautiful mountain vista they could see from their front window, of their back window that every morning would be covered by a multitude of moths of every colour and size and of long walks through the nearby Honde Valley. After these conversations, which would inevitably end with a longing sigh from my mom, I was left to dream about this heaven on earth we had left behind.
* * *
I had come to Zimbabwe with the desire to reconnect with my family’s past, a past I must honestly confess to not knowing much about. Like many immigrant families, mine had had to leave their past behind when they came to their new home. In 1991, when we came to Canada, my family left behind friends, other family members, familiarity and a collective history that comes with having grown up in one place. Growing up, there were no family trips back to the homeland, no old friends coming to visit. All I had was second hand stories that offered me nothing more than a glimpse, leaving me with a constant yet unfulfilled desire to see for myself.
And so here I was, finally with a chance to see for myself. The opportunity to finally appease the desire within me so close that I could not even think about coming all this way only to be denied by the inability to find it. But, as the hours went by and the reading on the odometer grew, so did my doubt. We pressed on nonetheless.
We knew we were close but with no real signage and multiple dirt roads to turn down it was difficult to do any better than that. We had stopped to ask people we passed where the road to Chingamwe was but all we got in return were confused looks and unsure and conflicting directions. One man sitting in the long grass on the side of the road seemed confident in his directions. He told us the dirt road to Chingamwe was 10 km back and was soon after the bridge, a section of road we had passed at least three times already. We turned the truck around and headed for the road. I was cautious not to get my hopes up.
As we crossed over the bridge and came up to the road we saw a group of people who had been sitting there all day, dressed in the bright yellow regalia of Zanu-PF, the country’s governing party. They had matching yellow T-shirts adorned on the back with the ubiquitous portrait of President Robert Mugabe. Yellow baseball caps with green brims and small Zanu flags shaded their faces from the bright and unobstructed Nyanga sun. They watched us as we made the turn from the main road down the possible road to Chingamwe, kicking up giant clouds of red dust as we did. As we bounced uncomfortably down the uneven, potholed road we came up to a fork. To the right, going up the mountain, was a worse looking road with a sign to Mtarazi Falls. To the left, passing by a dirt soccer field with a few kids kicking a torn ball, seemed to be the continuation of the road we were currently on. Not entirely sure where we were going and seeing more hope of finding something along the road we were on, we decided to continue on.
We passed more yellow clad people, some holding young babies wrapped tightly against their backs, some leading a herd of goats and others lounging on the side of the road. We went on, passing by vast swaths of neatly rowed Pines, a telling characteristic of logging country. We stopped to ask if we were on the right road. The young man we asked, wearing a torn shirt and baggy pants, couldn’t speak any English. When asked about Chingamwe all he could do was repeat the name, not knowing what we were asking him. In such a remote and rural area, it wasn’t all that surprising. Nearby however, stood an old man with a whitening beard. He approached the truck inquisitively and when the same question was directed to him a knowing expression crossed his face.
“Oh, Chingamwe? Yes I know it,” he said slowly. “You have to go back and take the Mtarazi road. That will take you to Chingamwe.”
I couldn’t believe it. After hours of searching and hearing nothing but unsure answers, here was finally a confident response telling us we were not far away at all. We turned the truck around, for what seemed to be the hundredth time, and made our way back. This time I let my hopes rise and couldn’t repress the smile that crossed my face.
* * *
We passed the dirt soccer field again, this time there was a full fledged game going on and a cloud of dust could be seen forming around the barefoot players. We turned and started making our way up the mountain. We rose steadily, skirting deep valleys and passing logging tractors on the narrow path. Then, suddenly, opening up in front of us was Chingamwe. A small group of low, white-washed houses lay to the right, the valley and surrounding mountains to the left. My aunt, who was driving, stopped the truck and pointed to the nearest house.
“That’s the one,” she said. “It’s been 23 years but I recognize it for sure!”
I got out and walked up to the open gate. There it was. Right in front of me stood the house that I had heard so much about, that I had built up in my mind over the years. The building itself was nothing special; a typical white-washed, cement, one story building. I wasn’t there for the four walls though. I had found it and reclaimed a part of my past and the feeling didn’t disappoint. My past sat there, seemingly staring back at me saying “I’ve been expecting you.” I stood there soaking it all in. I walked up the steps, the same steps my mom used to carry me up. I turned and saw the view, the same view my dad would have looked at after a long day’s work. It was no longer their home, it hadn’t been for over 20 years, but as I stood on the porch of this stranger’s house I felt fulfilled. All the stories I had ever heard, all the pictures I had ever created in my mind, culminated in this one moment of pure discovery. It was not my home but I felt at home. I turned to the recesses of my imagination once again and saw my whole family, together, sitting right where I was. It was a beautiful image indeed.
Until next time!