Searching for Chingamwe

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!

IMGP6673

The house…

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… And it’s view

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38 thoughts on “Searching for Chingamwe

  1. As i sit on my front porch in the early morning drinking coffee in Canada i can say – Nicely done! Mom & Dad will be proud!

  2. Carlos
    I am not a big reader but your descriptions in your writing I feel as though I am standing at the house with you. I love reading your Blogs. I know your dad is very proud of what you are doing as he asks me every day if I have read you latest posts. Great Job what you are doing is connecting your parents also with a past that they Loved, I know because I have heard all their stories.

    • Thanks so much Craig! I really appreciate the kind words and the encouragement. I would write these stories regardless of if people read them or not, because I love to write, but it definitely helps to know that there’s people enjoying them.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m so glad you found it… Finding a specific place in Nyanga, let alone if you haven’t seen it before, isn’t always easy.

    • You’re absolutely right. Finding something so small in Nyanga is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. If it wasn’t for my Aunt who was with me who had seen the house more than 20 years earlier, I would never have found it.

    • Although the past 20 years or so has made it difficult to talk about Zimbabwe without also mentioning Zanu-PF I really wanted this story to focus on something else. Zimbabwe is such an amazing place, despite its political difficulties, and this is what I wanted to showcase. I wouldn’t have even mentioned Zanu-PF if I hadn’t come across people wearing the party shirts. Too often I find a discussion on Zimbabwe gets hijacked by its politics. At its core, Zimbabwe is a country with spectacular beauty and lovely people.

  4. Loved this. About exactly as I’d feel going back to our campsite, though it doesn’t exist anymore. I visited Zim in 1993 and thought it was gorgeous…I wish I could go back! I can just hear the turtledoves…

  5. Sounds interesting might have to take you up on that some other time.
    Following and supporting your blog! Looking forward to future updates!

  6. I was never aware of Changamwe before this blog. What an interesting post. I don’t think I will ever get to Zimbabwe but thanks for making me aware of this area.

  7. Spoke with your Dad today. Told him your blog is wonderful. You spoke with my wife and I in the early Spring at the cafe. You told us your dreams and aspirations. We were both touched.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences. May God bless and keep you safe!
    You are a real inspiration to a great many people.

    • Hi Rod, Thanks so much for the kind words! I remember speaking with you and your wife. I really appreciate you taking the time to read about and follow my journey. I write primarily because I personally enjoy it but it’s great when I’m able to touch and inspire something in others as well. Thanks again!

  8. I can completely relate to your experience. I have traveled around the world, changed location every 2 years and I know that there is nothing better than finding home 🙂
    Do you mind if I reblog your story on my blog – http://www.Xpatnation.wordpress.com. I am trying to collect and organize the xpat experiences i come across into one space for people to find inspiration, I think there will be many expats who will relate. Cheers!

    • Hi Misha,

      You can absolutely reblog this. You’re right, there’s nothing quite like finding home. Even if we don’t really know where it is or when we’ll get there, I think our lives are one big search for home. Some of us are blessed enough to find a great one, others have to keep searching. In the end, a longing for home is the great equalizer.

      Thanks for reading!

  9. Hello! I enjoyed reading this immensely — it’s actually quite amazing how you felt immediately at home at Chingamwe, even after having left it for more than two decades. Maybe ‘Home’ is something that we carry in us, and not just a physical place. May I reblog this on my blog? Cheers!

    • Hi Nurul! Thanks for reading! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Feel free to reblog my post if you want to. And I completely agree with you. I think Home is definitely something we carry in us. Over the course of our lives, we can feel at home in many different places. It is a sentiment of calmness, belonging and a state of mind that we transfer from our inner selves onto our surroundings that make a place home. I find this comforting. To me, it means that we can never really be without a home because even if we haven’t found a geographic place, we keep it within us for safekeeping until that time comes.

      Thanks for your comment!

  10. Pingback: Searching for Chingamwe | Piga Makofi

  11. Carlos, we don’t know each other but I came across your blog searching the net for Chingamwe in a nostalgic mood. I lived and worked in the area as Estate Manager for The Wattle Company from 1994 to 2000. The Wattle Company bought Chingamwe around 1995/1996 and closed down the sawmill. My wife and I spent 2 or 3 years in a house on the other side of the ridge to your home overlooking the waterfall and trading store, near the dam where I would go fly fishing most evenings. I know the view in your photograph well. The years we spent on Nyanga Estates are bathed in a golden light. As the locals say when it is time to say goodbye, ” More time”. Would be glad to talk further about it. kind regards Stephen.

  12. Hi Carlos. My step father Denis Mason was manager when the sawmill was built in the early ’70s. He and my mum lived there for many years up till the terrorist war got out of hand. Denis started the trout hatchery and guinea fowl rearing. I spent many happy holidays there. They lived in the main house called ‘inyangani house’ or similar. No electricity to begin with. Have some photos too. Small world. Such a wonderful story you tell. We would also love to visit one day but I expect things are way different now. Sincerely Jackie Meyer

  13. I just read your blog about the Chingamwe Forestry Estate with great interest. My dad, my grandfather and many cousins worked for Imperial Tobacco Company. In 1949 as growing pressure for wood was over deplete g other estates in Malawi and Rhodesia, the company acquired almost 10,000 acres putting together Chigamwe. They built almost 80 miles of estate roads and planted the windswept grass and bracken mountainsides with primarily pine and blue gum (Euchalyptus). The timber was used for wooden casks (hogsheads) to pack and transport tobacco from their Central African plants in Limbe and Msasa as well as plants in the USA and London Ontario to factories in Bristol, London, Edinburgh, Nottingham, and Dublin. In the 1960’s, hogsheads were supplanted by cardboard cases. Additionally, the politics of embargo began about that same time. When the embargo began, the company used income from timber sales to pay salaries. At some point I knew they sold these properties but I never knew exactly when. I really enjoyed your post. I have actually stayed in one of the three houses like yours which were built in the mid 1950’s for European staff. Many visitors from the U.S., Canada, and the UK spent happy nights there enjoying g the sun, the scenery, hiking, riding, and hunting.

    Thanks for your excellent blog. This entry got me hooked enough to go back and read your others. I’m sure your parents are proud of you!

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