Spiwe the kombi driver of Harare

Spiwe Mahachi-Harper

Spiwe Mahachi-Harper

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
The kombi is a city in miniature. Each trip there contrasts on board every shade of the urban experience. A conductor proudly extracting life from downtown fringes and a driver conversant with suburban connectography enough to sidestep roadblocks pair in the cockpit.

One is a restless chatterbox whose tongue works all day like the heart. The other is a seasoned diplomat who can negotiate his way past anything, from police to potholes, traffic jams and malfunctioning traffic lights.

In the passenger row meet a lover off to her date in Nollywood-perfect slimwear, a student who has it all figured out, and a plumb landlady headed for the marketplace with a basket of dainties on her lap.

On the “Kadoma” slot meet an honest teacher rehearsing a loan application in his Sunday best, a Pentecostal brother itching to reroute a few souls from hell, and Winky D’s after-25 persona accustomed to the fast lanes of the inner city.

The rest, animatedly hunched over WhatsApp, ears plugged by audio from upscale gadgetry and boar goats soon after pocketing their change, give away their stories neither by outfit nor by conversation.

But there is never a dull trip on the kombi. It is easier for a kombi to go to town without a driver than without at least one noisy fellow passenger.

The kombi is the site where urban diaries converge, from the juicy to the grumpy and the lowdown, moderated by the tipsy tout in the cockpit.

One day last year, Zimbabwean author Spiwe Mahachi-Harper, lately returned from her UK base, took a kombi to town and found herself surrounded by these unlikely muses.

The stories told on the kombi became the material for her vastly reflective latest short story collection “Kombi Tales: The Shattered Pattern of Life”.

The book, whose narrators the author slaps with ungenerous nicknames such as the Big House, The Virgin, The Doc and The Youth in the course of the telling, is entertaining, funny, controversial and heartbreaking.

Trending issues such as xenophobia, Diaspora families, prosperity preachers, revenge porn, small (Christians say smell) houses, political violence and power cuts (lately reintroduced by La Nina) are deftly fitted into this narrative omnibus.

The book is actually a series of stories which Spiwe heard over several kombi rides and collated into a string of pearls for her publisher (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung)’s neck.

“This collection of short stories, although written as if they were told in one day, is actually a collection of narratives that I have heard on different days but during the same week by real passengers in Harare.

“If one of the stories here sounds like that one you heard in a kombi, then you and I probably rode on the same vehicle on one of those days; and if it sounds like a story that you once shared in a kombi, then it probably is,” Mahachi-Harper prefaces her book.

Next time before you give away every pixel of your past on the kombi as if you are in the safety of your priest’s confessional, you may want to look around in case a bespectacled, gentle author is making you the main character of her book.

But then, the most genuine books are populated by everyday people and Spiwe has extracted the colourful life aboard the kombi to discuss topical issues faced by her compatriots, home and abroad.

No mean to lightly breeze through these because the challenge of the Zimbabwean novel is to grapple with issues of the day without sounding journalistic or perspective.

If the soul never thinks without a picture, as Aristotle said, then Spiwe has swept from the kombi story pixels we can easily relate with to discuss critical issues and the value is in both the entertainment and the introspection.

The book begins when the author is hauled into a moving vehicle while fleeing from political violence in the capital city. The kombi reroutes and finds refuge under foliating jacaranda just after the Seke Road flyover.

Apprehensive of further disturbance, the stranded kombi crew and passengers kill time by telling each other their life stories at the author’s suggestion.

This is the story into which 12 unique, if occasionally intersecting, stories are fitted. It is slow-moving and deceptively calm but it has its own twist and turns.

Tragically, a passenger on the way to hospital after a diabetic coma, dies in his mother’s hands towards the end of the book.

The lack of urgency preceding his death sparks incredulous hindsight but also calls to attention silent victims, edges cropped out and stains airbrushed off the bigger picture.

In “Rudaviro–call-me–Rudy: Keeping up Appearances”, a 38-year old Diasporan bachelor explores the downside of a selfie-centred life on foreign hunting grounds.

The breakdown of families under pressure from an adopted, sometimes culturally incompatible settings is a recurring feature in the story, while evolving gender roles also come under scrutiny.

The story concurs in several respects with “The Remembered Paths of Previous Journeys” and “The Doc: Voices and Choices: Old-time Religion”, also told from the perspective of UK-based Zimbabweans briefly home to tie the pieces together.

Rudaviro goes through the misunderstanding and manipulation that sometimes erodes the bond of Diaspora families from both sides of the divide.

“Now you people are no longer content with what we give you. You feel you must also fleece us. When we tell you that our papers are not in order so we cannot come home, you take that to mean we shall never set foot in the motherland, so you abuse not just the funds we send but our trust as well,” Rudy fumes.

“The Youth: Send Me a Pic” is a story about a rural beauty pageant whose ex-boyfriend leaks her nude selfies when her sun is at its highest, taunting admirers that he had ploughed with their heifer.

It is a heart-breaking story about the torment and indignity impressionable girls endure at the hands of wicked men and the proliferating dark web whose shadowy proprietors earn their living as vultures of human suffering.

“Old-Time Religion” explores the rift between mainline churches and charismatic mega-churches where attention sometimes revolves around the eloquent founders.

These are called out for planting paranoia in the hearts of their devotees so they can fasten on the coattails and open themselves up for emotional and financial manipulation.

The overtly conservative narrator contrasts celebrity preachers’ love of affluence on the back of their poor followers to the modesty and social responsibility of mainline churches.

It should be fair, though, to attribute the prosperity preachers’ popularity to their willingness to address the present-day economic challenges, social needs and spiritual anxieties of their congregants in the context of Christian liberty.

At first I found myself questioning whether the intensely personal and unsparingly detailed dozen monologues, interjected here and there, were something I could picture on a regular kombi ride.

The author is essentially deploying the kombi as a narrative masterstroke and the unusual circumstances in which her dramatis personae find themselves set the stage for a long-form arrangement.

The polished language of the passengers is bound to raise a few eyebrows, with a few learned references and foreign language phrases stoking the scepticism.

But this could be offset by considering the kombi’s uptown route, Diaspora passengers on board, Zimbabwe’s book smart repute and the cultural variations among the speakers.

Spiwe is the author of three novels – “Trials and Tribulations”, “Echoes in the Shadows” and “Footprints in the Mists of Time”.

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Article Source: The Herald