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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

Running on empty

Omen Muza - 2008-06-18

Nhamo inserts the key and gingerly turns it to start the ignition, but the car splutters incoherently and dies down. This unexpected outcome jolts him into an upright position. It is as if the key has been crudely thrust into his mind but is failing - desperately and miserably - to ignite any sense of motion. Or sound. Not again, please! The sense of paralysis is overwhelming. He knows that if the car goes to the garage, it will be at least two weeks before he can have it back, because the garage does not have foreign currency to import spare parts.

He draws a deep, apprehensive breath and turns the key again. The engine protests vigorously, but eventually gives in and roars to life, timidly blowing smoke into the already polluted air, making him a carbon sinner who aids and abets the global warming agenda. He is ashamed of himself, but his choices are limited. He must drive this thing. The smoke chokes him and makes him cough when he sticks his head out of the window to reverse the damned thing. He hates going backwards for whatever reason, even if it is the only direction possible.

Now the little amber light has come on, but soon it will start flashing persistently, and drive him around the bend. It has been going on for several years now, this quiet, dignified desperation. This running on empty that sends him from pillar to post in search of something that, once found, will merrily burn into toxic fumes of carbon monoxide and give him the impression of moving closer to … nowhere in particular, if not the next queue. How absurd! And each time he finds himself back in the same place again – searching!

There is no one in the office - everyone is probably stuck in a transport queue somewhere, waiting his or her turn to be carted to a place where returning will similarly be a struggle.

It is at Amby,” the gentleman from the Administration Office declares knowingly. It is impossible, in fact futile, not to believe him. Nhamo doesn’t even need to ask what "it" is. He knows, and in any case people do not even refer to "it" by name anymore.

Without a word, he goes out to his car and commands it to head in the direction of what looks at first like promise but suspiciously resembles anguish. His worst fears are soon confirmed as he finds himself at the back of the longest queue his car has ever been a part of. Even before he comes out of the car, behind him the queue has swollen into something hideous in which people continuously deposit their expectations and wait. Oh, the tyranny of waiting!

Two men come out from the cars immediately in front of and behind his car and instinctively, as if on cue, he joins them in the shade of the nearby jacaranda tree. They look friendly enough, so with arms folded across their chests, they collectively survey the many years of bungling, suddenly showing up, one by one, to arrange themselves neatly into a daunting queue. Nhamo is convinced that this is what age-old skeletons must look like when they finally tumble out of rickety cupboards worn out by many years of pretence.

“Do you think we will get it?” the man from the car in front wonders.

“Is it there in the first place?” Nhamo answers with a new question of his own. He has been chastised many times for his cynicism.

It is there, but they are serving the other queue first,” the one from the car in the back says. At least he has some information. Under the circumstances, information is so important because it could determine the difference between a wild goose chase and a triumphant search.

So they wait, talking about a lot of things, including the difficulty of raising children in this country where, according to Nhamo, “deprivation is the rule rather than the exception”, and about escaping from the captivity of formal employment to “do one’s own thing”, as everyone seems to be doing these days. The question all of them have, but which none of them asks, is: How much hardship are people prepared to endure before finally confronting their tormentors?

Occasionally, new bits of information transmit themselves along the queue like a virus, infusing it with renewed hope, or despondency, as the case may be. Vendors selling freezits, soft drinks, shrivelled bananas, oranges, roast peanuts, airtime, cell phone pouches and, of all things, padlocks, move along the queue in much the same fashion as the information, eliciting a half-hearted response here, an enthusiastic beckoning of the hand there, or a total cold shoulder. The idea of a padlock evokes the phenomenon of kungokiya-kiya, which everyone confesses they are doing when you ask them how they are doing. Now some creative people have begun calling it kungoqueuer-queuer, and there is also talk of “professional queuers” who join queues solely to buy things that they can resell at higher prices. The determination to make an honest living in the sweltering heat is enviable.

“Have you heard the new one about IQ?” the informative gentleman from the car behind asks.

“You mean …?” Nhamo is trying to understand how something as esoteric as the Intelligence Quotient can be related to the struggle currently tormenting not only the entire city but the entire country for good measure. In fact, it is even more difficult to understand what is new about the IQ.

“I mean, we live in the country with the highest average IQ in the world – IQ for sugar, IQ for soap, IQ for matches, IQ for mealie meal, IQ for bread, IQ for milk, IQ for cash and IQ because this queue is probably for something I will need.”

The expectant silence explodes into shrapnel of laughter, tearing the late-morning silence apart as they all make the connection about queuing for almost everything that money can buy under the sun. It doesn’t even occur to them that they have not enquired about one another’s names, yet the sense of camaraderie is utterly profound.

Suddenly, the queue heaves forward like a chain gang and they all rush to push their cars and close any gaps that some daring kamikaze queue-jumpers might sneak into, thereby depriving someone of a date with destiny. No one dares start their vehicle, in order to conserve the little that remains, so they say. The thing to do is to give the car a mighty shove and then jump into the driver’s seat as the car glides along the side of the road.

The excitement dies down almost as quickly as it began. Apparently the queue moved only because a few people have given up altogether or will return to rejoin it later after running some errands in the city.

One by one, the drivers get out of their cars again and congregate at the roadside to ponder an uncertain near future and regale one another with unlikely stories of heroism. The search has become a permanent feature of life and, as they say, every life has its heroes - and villains! Some people just sit in their cars and toy with their cellular phones, occasionally sending an sms to the wife to bring the other car or a blanket to the "Small House", inviting her to spend the night in the queue, or to a colleague at the workplace requesting him to cover for them. Others simply sleep in their cars if they are not reading a book or a newspaper.

Unable to endure any more of the sun and the standing, Nhamo retires to the comfort of his car and attempts to read Capitalist Nigger. Reading this book makes him so angry to be in this Q, but it’s all he has with him, so he has to make do with it. However, he soon finds it profoundly difficult to concentrate because of the book’s insistence on shouting at him about so many things that are wrong with Africa, so instead he drifts into thoughts about the circumstances that he and his country are currently facing. The irony of his name is not lost on him: by the mere act of naming him Nhamodzenyika his parents inextricably tied his destiny to that of his country …

These days the availability, or come to think of it, the non-availability, of it has far-reaching consequences on the anthropology of the country. Suddenly a new species of the human type answering to the generic name Biggaz has emerged at service stations throughout the country, but especially in the urban areas, where this outbreak has assumed epidemic proportions. The word service implies that someone or something is “serviced or served” at these stations, yet in reality nothing much happens there anymore, for the most part.

Almost in as sudden a manner as they appeared on the scene, this class of people can now afford cellular phones and a fairly comfortable lifestyle. Information makes the difference between a full tank and a never-ending search; so desperate motorists buy Biggaz a cellular phone and ply him with other gifts in order to be the first to be alerted as soon as there is a delivery. The situation is so bad that on the roads motorists instinctively change course and follow any tanker they see, in case they are the first one in the Q. Such a course of action sometimes ends in disappointment, because the tanker is usually empty.

This desperation, if not naked opportunism gripping the nation has now assumed macabre proportions; people have even begun to abuse burial orders, and sometimes even dead bodies at these service stations. Countless people use the same burial order to extort preferential treatment until someone catches up with the trick.

New farmers, another species that has also recently appeared on the scene, get subsidised products at designated service stations at less than the price of a bottle of Coca-Cola and immediately divert it to the black market. It is cheaper to trade it there than to engage in farming, which they say is a rather hard and sometimes unrewarding endeavour with a long payback period.

An old battered car that at night moonlights as a brothel is pushed from the street corner to the pump to demand a full tank, thereafter immediately disappearing back into the alleyway to be quickly drained for a waiting customer. If you return hours later, the same ramshackle car will still be here, working tirelessly to sustain the black market while Biggaz conspicuously pays little if any attention to it …

It is already late afternoon when Nhamo emerges from his car to stretch his limbs. He has been so deeply lost in his thoughts that he has been oblivious of the hunger gnawing persistently at his guts. He is running on empty, just like his old trusted car and his old trusted country. Empty promises, empty stomach, and empty tank. Bananas are all that is available to eat, so he buys himself four from the nearest vendor and eats them slowly, as if to capture the very "banananess" of them and savour it lastingly. He has heard that bananas prevent many ailments, but the one characteristic that he values most at this point in time is their famed ability to retain water in his system. There is no public toilet nearby and the householders in the neighbourhood will not easily let anyone into their homes to relieve themselves.

The night is going to be a long one and his only companions will be the radio that ceaselessly churns out urban grooves, the thick two-in-one blanket he remembers buying four years ago in a downtown Indian shop in Johannesburg, and the flaskful of Tanganda tea his wife has sensibly delegated to keep him warm during the wintry night …

The first rays of the sun seem to infuse life into the queue as if it is some kind of snaky solar panel writhing listlessly under the weight of all the different activities taking place within it: here, someone neatly folds a blanket and puts it in the boot of the car, there someone returns to claim their place in the queue, and everywhere the sense of expectation is unmistakable. It is as if people actually live here. Those who can afford the luxury, or perhaps care for such luxury under the circumstances, brush their teeth or wash their faces.

There is a steady stream of people pitching up with fresh supplies of tea or coffee, sandwiches and the day’s news. The odd one who comes from nowhere and attempts to sneak into the queue for the first time will, of course, be recognised immediately and flushed out, eliciting much protest and disgruntled howling. The sense of unity is impregnable. After spending the night in this queue, everyone feels bound by a common destiny, as if the queue itself is some kind of pilgrimage, and being in it - especially overnight – is a badge of honour that marks one as a true, archetypal struggler deserving not only respect but maybe fear as well. In this queue, people share everything from food, information and hope to uncertainty, dejection and expectation. While their actions say, “We can handle this thing”, the undercurrent of their anxiety flows ominously, asking “How much longer shall it last?”

Without warning, the queue heaves forward, just like yesterday, and everyone either jumps into their car to start it or take their position beside it and push it closer to destiny. They know the drill. Word has quickly gone around that they are finally serving! The queue seems to heave a collective sigh of relief and appears to move faster the closer one gets to the pump.

Nhamo is now sure of getting his fair share of destiny with which he will soon triumphantly drive away - to love and burn it, to feel it turn into smoke behind him at the unsure instigation of his right foot, and to embrace the rush of wind in his face. He will soon have his first full tank of petrol in about a month - the search over with a triumphant flourish.

However, hope and fuel are still in short supply – they both lead straight into the next queue.

Then Nhamo sees him. It is he, the very one who he didn’t know had been having an affair with Trish for two years right under his nose. Right until she fell pregnant with what he thought was his baby, only for Trish to confess otherwise when even she could no longer bear the weight on her shoulders after she collected the results. The one who even gave her a job in his company and bought her the flat that Nhamo all along thought belonged to Trish’s sister in the Diaspora.

The man is clearly unwell, but is somehow being kept together by something much stronger than whatever is eating him. When someone is in his state, people here cruelly say he is in the departure lounge. Nhamo hears that the baby did not live long and that Trish herself is in no enviable condition. Just as they are now about to “drink” from the same source now with this fellow, for two years and maybe more they both sampled Trish’s delights without ever knowing of each other’s existence. When she finally told him about him and Nhamo asked why on earth she had done it, all she could say was, “I love both of you. I was confused. I could not bear to see one of you walk away, because you have both been so good to me.”

This is far too much for anyone to bear, so Nhamo - overwhelmed by a potent cocktail of fear, confusion and anger that brews ominously in his head - quietly reverses his car out of the queue and takes off to … nowhere in particular. The gap behind him is quickly closes and the queue continues as if nothing has happened. The last thing on his mind is fuel, and he certainly doesn’t want a confrontation, something he can’t trust himself to avoid in this state. At the moment, he wishes that nowhere was a place with queues that don’t hang out with inconvenient facts, queues that hold only the promise of deserved triumph at the end of a long wait. He will live to fight - to search another day. Now he must quell the civil war that is raging inside him.


Meanings of some lesser known words

Biggaz: Slang arrived at from the bastardisation of big meaning "The Big One". Biggaz is usually a wealthy and respectable person; in this case it means the one who is in control.

Freezits: These are soft drinks in small transparent plastic sachets. They are normally sold in a frozen state, especially in summer.

Kungokiya kiya: Means "we are making do" or "we are just managing", the equivalent of “so-so”.

Kungoqueuer-queuer: Means "we now spend our time queuing for this and that."

Nhamo: Loosely translated as troubles; may also mean "poverty".

Nhamodzenyika: Means “the nation’s problems”.

Small House: Zimbabwean slang for mistress. The mistress’s house is supposed to be smaller than and junior to that of the legitimate wife, in terms of both size and stature. This house is often derogatorily referred to as “Smell House”.

Urban grooves: A type of contemporary Zimbabwean music with a significant following among the youth. This genre draws heavily on hip-hop and is characterised by rapping against the background of mainly computer-generated or digital beats.