The JRB presents an excerpt from Ndima Ndima, the debut novel from Tsitsi Mapepa.
Catalyst Press, 2023
The Hollowed Scar
Late Winter 1991
Nyeredzi was eleven years younger than Ruth, but she still worried about her, especially the scar on her sister’s foot. All day Ruth wore her canvas shoes while others wore flip–flops inside or outside the house. Even that time they shared a bed—after their cousin Jossey left their room infected— Ruth wore socks.
It was hard to keep on asking questions about the same thing, wanting to know more about the past that Ruth was trying to hide. A deep hollowed scar was there on Ruth’s right foot, where she was shot as a child in the Second Chimurenga War. The Rhodesian soldiers had been patrolling Marondera City. Zuva was out to buy the essentials, but there were screams, and soon, bullets started flying in the air. Zuva was carrying Ruth on her back and as she ran for safety, a bullet pierced through Ruth’s little foot.
Nyeredzi wondered if the scar had healed, whether her sister felt pain when she carried her. She loved to ride on Ruth’s shoulders, feeling the breeze brushing her face and seeing the earth from up high. It was satisfying enough without demanding Ruth buy ice cream for her. Nyeredzi just wanted to have that long walk again, to feel her sister’s grasp when they held hands.
It was now late winter in August when the maize crops they harvested from the fields were fully dried. Zuva was sending Ruth and Nyeredzi with bags of maize to the mill across the bush. The maize was to be ground into mealie meal, and this was Zuva’s first batch harvested from the cleared fields.
‘Are you ready, Nyeredzi? I’m leaving right now,’ Ruth called. ‘It’s already noon—can you hurry up? Mama is expecting us to be back early.’
‘Please wait for me, Sis?’ Nyeredzi shouted from Zuva’s bedroom, squeezing her feet inside her canvas shoes.
The back door slammed, and Nyeredzi could hear Ruth outside talking to Zuva. Their voices faded as though they were walking into the bush. Nyeredzi was trying to dress as quickly as she could. Her face crumbled; a dark cloud was building up inside her. Tears were flooding her eyes, falling on her cheeks. Nyeredzi didn’t know how she ended up outside, but she let out a long sigh of relief when she saw Ruth standing by the sack bags filled with dried maize, under the water berry tree.
Zuva picked up the little sack and placed it on Nyeredzi’s head.
‘Aah, Mama, this is so heavy,’ Nyeredzi complained. Her mother didn’t respond to her, she placed a bigger sack on Ruth’s head.
‘Mama, why are you giving me a sack that is so heavy?’ Nyeredzi demanded.
‘You are the one who cried to go with Ruth.’ Zuva adjusted the sack on Ruth’s head. ‘You are complaining but look at your sister’s sack. It’s five times yours.’
Nyeredzi and Ruth set off into the bush, dead leaves and bark crunching under their canvas shoes. Nyeredzi thought it was beautiful and scary at the same time. The Bill and Southern Tree Agamas chased each other on the ground, and girdled lizards lay still on large rocks, soaking in all the heat as much as they could.
After they walked for what felt like hours, they reached the Msasa tree and the river with its lush green reeds and algae-covered boulders. Nyeredzi was exhausted. Ruth crossed the river by stepping from one boulder to the next, and Nyeredzi followed, an eel swimming by in the clear water.
On the other side lay a narrow path. The maize was heavy, but Nyeredzi kept following Ruth, her hands grasping the bag on her head.
‘You must be exhausted,’ Ruth called back. ‘Do you want us to rest a bit?’
‘Yeah, I’m so tired.’ She could see that Ruth’s sack bag was more cumbersome than hers. Even shaking her head sideways was impossible.
‘Let’s walk until we get to the next tree.’
The sun had stopped warming the earth and was now burning it. Nyeredzi’s lips were stuck together. Dry. She was thirsty. At first, she enjoyed stepping on little ants and other insects crawling on the ground, but it wasn’t exciting anymore. She could barely lift her eyelids, and her feet were burning. The edge of the canvas shoes cut her skin as she walked. She wondered if Ruth was going through the same thing. When they reached the wide– branched jacaranda tree, they threw their sack bags by the trunk.
‘Come and sit here under the shade,’ Ruth said, sweeping away the dead leaves and twigs.
They sat listening to the pigeons cooing from a branch. Ruth pulled out a plastic full of water berries from her dress pocket. Surprised, Nyeredzi smiled, looking at her sister unfolding the plastic. They both began to gobble on the succulent fruit.
Later, when they finished eating the berries, Ruth took off her canvas shoes and shook the soil out. She rubbed her feet with her hands and rested them on her shoes. Nyeredzi did the same but was looking at her sister’s feet. If she could get up from where she was sitting and touch her scar, perhaps that would satisfy her curiosity once and for all. Maybe she would stop thinking so much about her sister’s past.
Nyeredzi imagined the soldiers who shot Ruth as the Pharisees with King Jesus. She had seen King Jesus revealing his scars on a large painting hung in her parents’ bedroom, except his scars seemed reddish, still raw. Ruth’s was big and brownish as if it had been repeatedly burnt by the sun. Too soon, Ruth put on the canvas shoes again.
‘I know you still want to sit, but we have to go.’
‘Do you think we will have something to eat again when we get there?’
‘I will see if I have spare change.’ Ruth coiled the top of the smaller sack bag and placed it on Nyeredzi’s head. ‘Yours is lighter—you are so lucky.’ She smiled, lifting hers with both hands. She got it halfway to her chest, staggered, and threw it back on the ground.
Nyeredzi was worried Ruth would hurt her foot. ‘Are you okay, Sis?’
‘I’m okay. It’s just heavy.’
Ruth lifted the sack bag again, leaning it against the tree. Slowly, she pulled it up to her chest and crouched down, ducking her head under the sack bag. It took time for Ruth to settle the sack on her head.
Halfway to the grinding mill, they reached the trenches dug by the city council. The rain had done them a favor by washing the soil back inside, but they still had to go up and down, which was time–consuming. Nyeredzi was now far behind her sister, struggling. Every part of her body was sore.
‘How is it going there, Nyeredzi?’
Nyeredzi didn’t respond; her lips got stuck together again. The boulders of red clay bruised her skin. Her canvas shoes were filled with soil again. Ruth stopped to pull the sack bag from Nyeredzi’s head with her left hand.
‘I can carry it. I just need to take the soil out of my shoes.’
‘You do that. When you finish, you can have it back.’
Ruth was now carrying two heavy bags, going up and down the trenches as the sun headed west. Nyeredzi held her shoes, running after Ruth. She forgot to ask her sister for the sack bag until they reached the grinding mill. Sack bags and wheelbarrows sat in a long queue, deserted by people resting under shady trees. The grinding mill and the Monstrous Joy bar were quiet because there was no power. Ruth threw their bags in the queue.
They strolled to the shade where everyone else was and sat down. Nyeredzi laid on her sister’s laps and fell asleep. By the time she was woken up by the grinding mill noise, the sun was setting, and the sky was an orange– peach color. Ruth and Nyeredzi crossed their arms, still waiting, while the stars came out. The bush was getting darker and darker until they couldn’t see the houses in the distance. They were far from being served and were going to be there at the grinding mill for hours. A woman with three children came up to them.
‘I thought I was the only one worried about crossing the bush,’ the woman said, looking at Ruth.
‘Do you think we can cross safely?’ Ruth asked.
‘With kids?’ the woman scoffed. ‘We will see.’
She returned to her sack bag, and Ruth and Nyeredzi moved closer to everyone in the queue. Nyeredzi had goosebumps, cold flowing through her nerves. The dark was disturbing enough without looking at it. Hunger was gone, and fear had taken over. The bush was deadly not only with poisonous snakes but also with thugs that hid in the trenches. The bar was now packed with men drinking. Loud music banged in their ears.
A tiny light seemed to be getting nearer, and it was Edward who lived in their cottage with Dingani. Edward was riding the bicycle that belonged to Mr. Manjo, their neighbor. Zuva had sent him, he said, and began talking to Ruth in a quiet voice.
‘Hey Nyeredzi,’ Ruth asked. ‘What do you think about going home now?’
‘What about the mealie meal? Are we leaving everything here?’
‘No, you go with Edward, and Papa will come and get me, okay?’
‘But I want to be with you and look after you.’
‘I know you do, but I’d like it if you go home now.’
Ruth lifted Nyeredzi onto the carrier. Nyeredzi held on tight to the bicycle bar, still confused why she had to leave her sister behind. Edward started pedaling the bicycle, moving away from the grinding mill toward the bridge that went over the train tracks.
Ruth waved. ‘I will see you at home, don’t worry,’ she shouted, smiling at Nyeredzi.
Nyeredzi could hardly see her as Edward pedaled fast, heading to the main road. She kept turning her head, looking at the hill, but soon it was just two buildings beaming with light, being sucked into the darkness.
Nyeredzi ran inside the house looking for her mother. Abigail and Hannah were sitting on the sofa looking nearly comatose with boredom. Mwedzi was talking to Mr. Manjo and Dingani. Her father slid a small axe and his black sjambok inside the coat. His curly hair somehow looked very long that night, like the mane on the male lion rug that was in her parents’ bedroom.
Mwedzi, Mr. Manjo, Edward, and Dingani all headed off into the bush. It didn’t take long for the darkness to swallow them. Nyeredzi stood next to Zuva at the back of their house, watching their figures disappear. She had not got the chance to say goodbye to Ruth earlier on at the mill, or to her father now, before he walked straight into the mouth of danger. She folded her arms and prayed for everyone to return safely.
Zuva had made the relish for dinner, but they were waiting for the mealie meal to make sadza. She built a fire at the back of their house and boiled some water for Nyeredzi to bathe. In the bathroom Nyeredzi forgot Zuva told her not to wet her braided hair in the evening, because it would take longer to dry. She couldn’t stop thinking about her sister, father, and the other men walking with him. She imagined them coming face to face with thugs. Her father pulling out his sjambok to whip the bad men. And Mr. Manjo holding a long hunting knife he made himself, chopping off the thugs’ body parts. She could see the boys, Edward and Dingani, lifting their legs in the air, kicking the thugs back.
The moment she imagined Ruth kneeling down, begging the thugs not to kill them, made Nyeredzi start crying. She lifted the whole bucket filled with warm water and poured it on herself because she wanted to get out as fast as she could. She was desperate to check the bush, to see if they were coming back.
She hurried to dress herself, and join her mother outside, watching the bush. All the procedures she usually did after having a bath weren’t important. She didn’t use lotion, and instead of changing into fresh, clean clothes, she wore the same clothes she wore on the long walk to the mill. Her hair was all wet and wrapped in a towel. Zuva must have noticed this, but she didn’t have the strength to scold Nyeredzi.
‘Mama, maybe we can pray for Papa and Sis?’
‘How about you do it there, where you are standing?’
‘What about your Bible, Mama?’
‘If you want to talk directly to God, you can still do that without a Bible. What matters is what you are saying from within,’ Zuva said, touching Nyeredzi’s shoulder.
‘But I always do that.’
‘Very well then,’ her mother said, folding her arms in front.
The evening breeze was battling with the warmth of the fire crackling behind them. Nyeredzi hoped her mother would start staying the words she usually said when praying for others, but Zuva stood still, staring at the bush.
After a while her mother turned around and walked back to the house. Nyeredzi followed her, watching her mother go to her bedroom; she stayed just outside the door, peeping in. The paraffin lamp was lit. Zuva knelt next to her bed, looking underneath the bed frame. She pulled out a locked safe, fiddled with the key in her hand but didn’t use it. Instead, she pushed the safe back underneath the bed and stood up.
‘Mama, what’s in the box?’
‘Nothing for you to worry about,’ Zuva said, and they walked outside again.
Nyeredzi stared into the dark bush, looking for any sign of figures walking toward them, but no one was coming back. Anxiety was crawling in her skin, raising the little hairs on it. She bit her lower lip until she could feel the pain. Was this pain the love she had for Ruth? Even her father?
They waited for two long hours, until two men with sack bags on their shoulders approached their house. Behind them was Ruth and the woman who’d talked to them earlier, holding the hands of her children. Mwedzi and Mr. Manjo were at the back, guarding the vulnerable.
‘Sis! Sis!’ Nyeredzi yelled and ran to hug Ruth.
‘Oh, my feet are really sore,’ Ruth said.
‘I can massage them in warm water if you want?’
The thought was kind and innocent, but later, when Nyeredzi sat on the floor next to a tub with warm water in the bedroom lit with two paraffin lamps, her gaze was drawn again to her sister’s scar. All she ever wanted to do was touch it and know if it was hard or soft, but now she hesitated to do so.
Ruth moved some pillows behind her body to sit comfortably on her bed. Nyeredzi’s back was against the piled–up furniture. She moved the tub close to the edge of the bed. Ruth sunk her feet into the tub and the scar bubbled as if it was breathing. Nyeredzi stared at it, as though she saw it through the magnifying glass, its size doubled underwater.
‘What’s wrong?’ Ruth asked. ‘Do you still want to massage me?’
‘Your feet need to be warm first,’ Nyeredzi told her. ‘That’s what Mama said last time I was massaging her.’
She doubted Ruth would believe her.
‘Mmm, who knew?’ Ruth said with her eyes shut.
Nyeredzi looked at the scar again.
Sooner or later, she had to do something with her hands—she’d promised Ruth after all. Nyeredzi sank her hands in the water and pretended to wash them, but when Ruth opened her eyes, she began to run her hands on her sister’s feet, pressing onto the swollen muscles. She massaged everywhere but the scar area.
Somehow, distracted by the sound of water she was pouring with cupped hands onto Ruth’s swollen feet, one finger dipped into the hollowed scar. Something splintered inside Nyeredzi. She could not explain it, but it was as if she felt the trauma Ruth endured when she was young. Now she understood why her sister always covered her feet. She continued massaging her sister, still circling the scar. And just like that, in one touch, Ruth’s trauma passed to her.
Tsitsi Mapepa is a Kiwi, Zimbabwean-born writer who lets her creative side stream out in poetry, short stories, and novels. She studied at Manukau Institute of Technology, where she won an award of excellence in 2016 and the Kairangatira award in the BCA in 2018, before completing her Master’s in Creative Writing degree at the University of Auckland in 2020. She resides in Auckland, New Zealand with her husband and three children. Ndima Ndima is her debut novel.
From debut Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Mapepa comes the saga of the four Taha sisters, and the indomitable matriarch who carried her daughters—and her community—through times of drought and violence in their Harare neighborhood.
From the red soil of her garden in Southgate 1, a crowded suburb of Harare, Nyeredzi watches the world. She knows not to venture beyond the grasses that fence them off from the bush, where the city’s violent criminals and young lovers claim the night. But on this red soil, she is sovereign. It is here where she learns how to kill snakes, how to fight off a man, and how to take what she is due. It is here where Nyeredzi and her three older sisters are raised, and where they will each find a different destiny.
Decades prior, a young woman abandons a position of great power to seek justice in the second Chimurenga War, only to return to find her world in shambles. So Zuva Mutongi sets off to build a world of her own, raising four daughters—Nyeredzi, Hannah, Abigail, and Ruth—and defending them from the evils beyond their small Harare home. But when a letter from her long-estranged brother calls her back to a past life, Zuva must reconcile with her duty and heal the broken community she left behind.
Tsitsi Mapepa’s vibrant debut is the history of a new Zimbabwe, with resilient women and men who raised a nation from its ashes. It is the chronicle of an L-shaped house, long awaited and much beloved, and the guests, welcome and unwelcome, who cross its threshold. It is the coming-of-age of four sisters, who will discover the secrets of womanhood on the volatile streets of Harare. But above all, it is a love song to one woman—a soldier, healer, chief, and mother—whose fierce devotion to her people is a testament to the bonds of blood that bind us all.