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

A toast to the war veterans

Lucas Ledwaba - 2009-06-10

They say that sometimes a man doesn’t need medicine to get back to good health. The mind, they say, is a powerful tool that sometimes keeps men confined to hospital beds or wheel chairs for much longer than they should be there, simply because they believe they are sick or disabled.

Sometimes, they say, a man of sound mind will remain in a mental institution for years simply because he believes, and is made to believe by those around him, that he’s mentally ill.

They say even men who spent years behind bars sometimes find it difficult to live in free society simply because their minds have been programmed in the ways of prison.

The mind, they say, it’s all in the mind. The mind, the damn mind!

Mind you, this is the mind! Well, never mind! Anyway, mind your own business! Mind, mind, mind …

Somehow, Naledi’s sudden appearance in Heinrich’s life was able to free his mind from the illness that had seen him spend close to a month in hospital. Suddenly, a heavy yoke that had hung around his shoulders all these years seemed to have somehow disappeared, blown away by the appearance of someone who for so many years had been missing from his life; one for whom he had sold his soul …

The long days spent pouring out his heart to one who was his own blood had suddenly reignited his zest for life; the assurance that the one he had for so long yearned to hold in his own arms was indeed still alive and well; living out his dream of feeling her warm embrace and seeing a replica of himself in her now made him look forward to tomorrow with even more vigour than before.

Today he was living out yesterday’s wishes. It was time to prepare for tomorrow now, a tomorrow of filling the gaps left by decisions made yesterday. Ah, but yesterday is gone now. Why worry about what is long gone? Well, why not worry, when yesterday continues to live in today and tomorrow? Worry, worry, worry …

Life, the greatest of all gifts to all creatures under the sun, was now starting afresh. Heinrich, at the age of 45, was beginning to feel like one who was born just the other day, one who had just woken up to the reality that life was there for the living, to be lived, to be celebrated.  

He felt his body regaining the strength that had slowly been slipping away in the days before he was reunited with Naledi, the daughter he had been forced to flee from even before she was born those many years ago.

The fever and the numbing headaches seemed a distant memory now. The long nights of tossing and turning, of long hours spent staring into the dull ceiling, waiting for night to become day, were gone now. Life, life, the greatest of all gifts for all creatures under the sun, was indeed starting afresh. The beginning, they say, is always the most exciting of times. For who wants to see the end, when all things cease to be as they were, when nothing is like at the beginning again? Death, who celebrates death? Don’t even the elephants, the gentle giants that have roamed the plains of the great continent for centuries, don’t they also mourn the end of one of their own’s life? Yes, even baboons, the inquisitive creatures that inhabit the bushes of Africa, don’t they also express a deep sadness when one of their own’s life comes to an end? Death, who celebrates it, except the lion and the leopard, whose own survival depends on the death of others?

Life, not death, is celebrated by man, for death is the end of a life. Who celebrates the end of a life, the end of the most precious of all gifts on this planet? Certainly not man, especially not the death of another man.

Life, birth, calls for a celebration. Heinrich hauled Billy over to a place he and his friends called The Legislature to celebrate his sudden recovery and early release from the hospital, the place of the sick and the dying, the place of those that were living out their last days, months, those who were battling to hang on to the most precious of all gifts.

The music of Peter Tosh was pumping out of two giant speakers mounted at opposite ends of the wall. Everywhere men were sitting at colourful steel tables lustily downing glasses of beer, laughing, singing along while swinging their heads rhythmically to the music. And Peter Tosh, oh, rastamon, son of jah! Oh yes, he was obliging them …
Everyone is crying out for peace,
But none is crying out for justice,
There won’t be no peace
Until maaaan got equal rights
I neeeeeeed equal rights.

Everybody wants to go up to heaven,
But nobody wants to die,
Everybody wants to get to the top,
But how far is it from the bottom … 

“The Legislature, Billy, this is the law-making abode,” Heinrich said, as they walked up to a table where some men sat playing cards and drinking beer.

“That’s why they always play such good music. You hear what dis mon is say now, dis mon Peter Tosh?” Heinrich laughed.

A big man with the shoulders of a hulk, who sat with three other men at a table at the furthest corner, noticed Heinrich walk in and jumped swiftly to his agile feet.

“Heeey, look who’s back … Henry.” The man, a hulk of a man whom Heinrich recognised at once as Wilberforce, yes, the one with shoulders like an American football player, rocked with laughter.

Wilberforce almost swept Heinrich off his feet when he swallowed him with a massive hug that resembled a rugby tackle. The other two men at the table turned around and laughed. Billy didn’t seem to have time for the dramatic welcome, walking straight to the bar to order beer.
“Ah Henry my friend,” bellowed another man at the table, Sylvester, the short one with arms bent like the horns of a buffalo. Heinrich recognised him at once and bellowed with laughter.

“I thought you had gone to heaven like Peter Tosh is saying here,” Sylvester said

They all laughed. The men, Sylvester and the other one, the one they called Stone because they said his face was black and rough like the rocks in the Zambezi Valley, also stood up to shake Heinrich’s hand, then, still laughing, they all sat around the table, leaving space for Billy at the opposite end of the table.

“I’m going to outlive all you guys here. I’m going to outlive even your president Bob,” Heinrich said, to even more laughter.

“Hey, but I thought I was going, man. It’s funny, you know, there were times when I was lying in that bloody hospital when I wished for a beer, man,” Heinrich said.

The men laughed again.

“You know, whoever made this thing, beer, ah, he’s a genius. I think he must have got the Nobel Prize for physics, hey?” Wilberforce said in his rather thin voice.

The men laughed and Wilberforce tried to speak amidst the laughter, but he was so choked by laughter himself that the words got stuck somewhere in his throat.
“Hey, Henry, that damn hospital hasn’t dampened your spirits, man,” Sylvester said.

“The best lesson I learnt from that hospital, man, is that life has to be lived. Nothing else, just live, because the minute you die, no more beer,” Heinrich said, to even more laughter.

Wilberforce composed himself a little and spoke with crackling laughter yet again.

“I can live with that,” he said. “But what about jiki-jiki? I mean sex, man?” 

The men cried with even more laughter.

“Well, well,” Heinrich battled the laughter threatening to choke him. “You don’t have to worry about that when you die, man. They don’t separate the men from the women in the mortuary like they do in hospital.”

The raucous laughter filled the bar as Peter Tosh sang his last lines on the booming PA system: " … equaaaal riiiights … equaaaaal riiiiights!”

Billy put four quarts of beer on the table and took his place next to Heinrich.

“Haa! Now this is a man,” Sylvester exclaimed, licking his lips at the sight of the frosty beer bottles.

“Henry, why don’t you introduce this man? He’s a good man,” Wilberforce said, grabbing one beer and quickly crackling it open with his molars.

Billy couldn’t help but join in the laughter, then stood up to shake their hands one by one.

“Billy Mokone, from Alex, Jo’burg,” he introduced himself. The men also stood to shake his hand warmly.

“Billy, welcome to The Legislature, my brother. Sylvester is my name,” the man with the arms that were bent like the horns of a buffalo said.

“Ah my brother, how’s the city of gold? We hear you people down there walk on streets paved with gold? Well, I’m called Stone around here; welcome, my brother,” the man with the face that was dark and rough like the surface of the great road from Cape Town to Cairo introduced himself.

“Wilberforce my brother, thanks for the beer,” the hulk of a man said, wiping his lips with the back of his thick hand, which Billy noticed had two tiny stumps for the two middle fingers.

“What happened to your fingers, man?” Billy asked.

The other men kept quiet, almost taken aback by Billy’s directness in asking the question. They knew that Wilberforce hated talking about his injury, but were taken aback to see him smile at the question.

“Have you heard of the war veterans?” Wilberforce asked Billy.

“Which ones? Zimbabwean war veterans? Who doesn’t know about them? Those guys are doing what Africans should have done a long time ago,” Billy replied.

“Which is?” Wilberforce asked.

“Taking back the land, man. You know, my government drives me mad. How can you negotiate over something that was stolen from you, something which rightfully belongs to you and gets stolen, then you have to negotiate?” Billy said.

Wilberforce grabbed a bottle of beer and filled up his glass. He looked Billy straight in the eye, then took a long swig from his glass.

“I’m a fucking war veteran man. But what do I have to show for it? I have no land, no job, no house, nothing. What kind of future will my children have? Now two of them have gone to the same South Africa you talk about because things are so much better there. But here, Zimbabwe …” Wilberforce shook his head then emptied his glass. Then began to speak again. “These two men here,” he said, pointing at Sylvester and Stone. “That guy over there, that one in the corner and the one over there drinking sorghum beer, do you see them?”

Billy nodded.

“War veterans! Stinking poor man! Fine, you can take the land, but then what do you do with it?” Wilberforce asked.

“Hey man, Africans have been ploughing the land long before the white man got here. Are you saying we can’t ...?” Billy charged.

“Yes, I get your point. But how many generations of commercial farmers do you black South Africans have?” Wilberforce asked.

Billy nodded.

“You need a transfer of skills. But the white man is not prepared to do that. He’s not prepared to part with his farm and his business skills. So he lets you take his farm rather than help in the transfer of skills. So, because we are so hungry, we all go and stay on the farm, eat up everything and go back to starving again, isn’t it?” Wilberforce challenged.

“But if we take back the land, then we can start from scratch and learn,” Billy said.

“You know, ask yourself why the guys in government didn’t take the land back then at independence? Why? Why now? It’s all politics man, it’s now all political, it’s got nothing to do with taking back the land to give to its rightful owners. Because they’ve lied to us for so long, they now realise the only thing to make us happy would be to own the land as they promised before we committed our lives to the liberation struggle,” Wilberforce said.

The men at the table nodded.

“Now back to your question. My fingers man, shit, I lost my fingers in a shootout with the Rhodesian soldiers. The bullet sliced off my fingers and killed the man behind me, Witness Chiraramo. They said he was a hero, but now, man, you should see his widow. She sells vegetables for a living in town. But all the guys who were asking us to go to war, man, they have farms and businesses, at whose expense? Funny, most of these guys never ever held a gun in their hands, they just sat in the offices and drank tea. And now we, the men who stared death in the face everyday, are forgotten, we are nothing.”

Billy told the men about the war veterans who were now dying in the shacks in the squatter camps in the townships back home. The men who were scrambling for a living in the cities, scavenging for food, begging for odd jobs just so they could put something to eat on the table. Men who gave up the best years of their lives and joined the liberation struggle because they believed in a better future for all, but now watched only a few in the top echelons of the liberation movement get richer and richer each day. Ah, the war veterans, the dogs of war, the forgotten people.
Men who had turned to a life of robbing and stealing and killing for money, just so they could feed their children, ah, children of Africa! Men who had come back home from exile with high hopes of a good life for themselves, their children and their communities, only to see their dreams and hopes fade away quickly and quietly, swallowed up by the politics of the day, the new elite that cared little about the heroes of yesterday, the comrades, the stone throwers, men who spoke a different language these days …

Sylvester shook his head quietly. “My brother,” he said, picking up a glass of beer. “There’s nothing new about what is happening in your country. That is the story of Africa, man. Go to countries that achieved their independence back in the '60s, and you’ll find the same thing, a few rich elite, and millions of poor, hungry, angry and bitter people who gave their lives to the cause. I mean look at this country, man …”

Africa, Africa the beautiful continent. They say it takes more than a lifetime for any man to understand Africa and its secrets. But trying to understand Africa is like trying to examine the womb from where one originated, for isn’t Africa the birthplace of mankind? Men have come from everywhere in the world, to Africa they’ve come, from Europe, from America and Asia and Australia.

Some came to spend just a week, others only a month. But week and month long stays ended up as decades spent in the warm bosom of Africa. These men and women tried, for years, every day of their lives, to understand Africa, to unravel its mysteries; in its ragged mountains and lush forests they have dug up bones and fossils, all in an effort to understand the un-understandable.

But who really understands the secrets hidden in the giant rocks and the rivers that teem with hippo and crocodile, in the trees and the grass that dance gently in the wind? Who understands these things? Africa, the motherland, mother of man …

The men sipped their beer in contemplative silence, wondering, perhaps, if the story of Africa, this story they had just discussed now, would ever change, probing, asking themselves if, perhaps, they had wasted their lives by giving their lives to the struggle against the colonial forces and their oppressive policies. But what if they hadn’t? Would the story of Africa be different because men and women chose not to take up arms against oppressive government systems? Would they have not suffered and crumbled under the yoke of oppression if they chose to obey instead of defying?

It may never be known, these things may never be understood, or answered clearly.

It was Heinrich who broke the saddening silence that had suddenly befallen the group.
“I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I fought on both sides, and believe me, I’m more angry than all of you, probably. I was what they called an askari!”

Billy’s eyes bulged at this revelation. Askari, the man who, had things been different, would have been his own brother in law? The man who would have married his own sister? Did he really serve the system? Was he one of the men who killed their own mercilessly on behalf of the oppressors? How? Why? All these questions rang in his head. But he said nothing.

“I was sold out by my own people,” Heinrich began to speak again. “Men who are now important people back home. And look at me now. I’m scared to return to my place of birth because … how does one return to a land he has betrayed?”

The men shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Even Peter Tosh seemed to sense their discomfort, for even his voice as he sang "I got to pick myseeeeeelf up …" seemed distant now.Heinrich was beginning to sweat again now, like that time in the hospital when he was relating his life story to Naledi, the daughter who had found him in faraway Harare after these many years, the girl who had been haunted, all her life, by memories of a father she had never met, a father she knew about but did not know. Heinrich’s hands trembled and his eyes twitched constantly.

“Do you know,” he said, struggling with a glass of beer in his hands, “do you understand how it feels? You will never know. No one will ever understand until they’ve been there, deep in the heart of the beast, and tasted its own blood. Only then can you understand what it feels like to be a dog of war …”

Wilberforce laughed nervously, gazing around at the men. “So, we are all war veterans then?” he said.

The men laughed nervously in unison, breaking the quiet, uneasy silence.

“War veterans, yes!” roared Sylvester, raising his glass of beer, then proposed a toast.

And the men drank to all the war veterans out there in the villages, cities, towns and locations of Africa, the beautiful land whose history is written in blood, the blood of both freedom fighter and the men and women who with their guns stood in the way of Africa’s freedom; to the war veterans without proper graves, those whose remains were eaten by the soil of the motherland exactly where they had met their bloody end; to the war veterans who haunted the streets and alleys of the cities and townships like ghosts from a bygone era, those whose names the present has forgotten, those that history will remember always as heroes, sons and daughters of Africa!