Where have all the flowers gone?

David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
According to Russian formalist literary theory, most people are so insensitive to their immediate surroundings that they tend never to know or notice the detail.

Those who live near the sea do not hear the waves, and those who live metres away from a busy road do not hear the traffic.

Similarly, some are quite close to railway lines, but hardly ever hear the trains go past or blow their whistles.

The antidote to all this “deadness”, according to the formalists, is a process they call defamiliarisation.

In terms of defamiliarisation, it is possible to rekindle people’s sensitivity and make them keenly aware of their surroundings once again.

When this happens, a person can freshly perceive a familiar object in such a way as to discern in it new things hitherto not seen or understood.

It used to be that if you were aboard a bus between Enkeldoorn (Chivhu) and Umvuma (today’s Mvuma), you saw wild ostriches, their long necks and tall legs graceful as they walked up and down dense savannah vegetation.

Being the perspicacious little brat from town that I was, seeing the huge flightless birds always made me think of feather dusters and the famous ostrich egg shells so valuable to the Khoisan of the Kalahari Desert.

Now you see nothing there except buildings and boosters. The ostriches have long disappeared and been replaced with beer outlets and other modern-day facilities and conveniences that loudly pronounce a type of wealth and well-being that goes well-beyond the frontiers of a deprived people’s imagination.

When my family joined me at our newly-acquired residence in one of the oldest low density suburbs of Gweru, the whole thing was a wonderful experience for us all.

In those days, I loved listening to Cliff Richard’s “You’ve Come Up in the World.” It made me feel that I had stepped higher on the social ladder.

Low density suburbs were known for their expansive yards and sometimes exotic architecture. Here you could see apple trees in the orchards as well as tangerines and oranges.

There were beautiful flowers everywhere, pink roses and elephant ears.

Our place also had the wondrous queen of the night shrub with its lingering perfume, and the enigmatically-named “Yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

The phone-room was the icing on the cake. It had a beautiful ring and you answered it with joy and pride whenever it rang. If you were on a party line you got to know which rings were yours, and you also got to know the eavesdroppers.

Our new home had a swimming pool with a deep end and a diving board.

The previous owner had used it to make a bit of money. Kids from the neighbourhood came to swim and she taught them how to spring from the diving board into the water.

The long-distance haulage trucks coming all the way to and fro the DRC and South Africa roared past day and night.

Sometimes there was a police road block just outside our yard. The police stopped many of the chicken buses, sometimes for rather long periods. You could hear the loud music and see the passengers throw garbage onto the road.

Hours after the police had gone, the place resembled a place that had been devastated by a marauding army.

Things got really hectic on long weekends when public holidays added to the usual weekends.

One day something quite remarkable happened on the highway, just outside our gate.

A monkey was hit by a haulage truck and lay there dead for all to see. I told my wife that I thought the monkey must have been sick. How else could anyone have explained such a phenomenon: an agile monkey failing to get out of the way of on-coming traffic?

We were used to monkeys raiding our gardens and orchards for green mealies and fruit.

They ran across the road, leapt onto the gate and trapezed along the precast wall into the garden.

That was a time when there were several troops of monkeys on the kopje and especially in the trees along Simpson Road.

When the dogs started barking, you knew the monkeys were in the trees or playing on the ground. I sometimes took my granddaughters to look at the monkeys along Simpson Road.

After a while we were able to recognise individual monkeys. There was a grizzled old fellow with a broken tail. We called him Mike and he had this curiously satisfied look, but could grimace threateningly if the children became too familiar and daring.

The mothers carried their babies under their bellies and never dropped them even when they swung and leapt up trees and branches with the confidence of a high-wire artiste and a beauty and fluidity of movement all their own.

But now Simpson Road is just another concrete jungle. The monkeys have gone, but hardly anyone knows where, or cares for that matter.

When I mentioned this to one of my daughters, she said in her view the area behind Simpson Road on the hill could easily have been developed into a woodland area with park benches to sit on and maybe one or two fish ponds to attract the kingfishers and the hammerkops.

Her view was that with the now ever-present curse of climatic change, it is important to start deliberate conservation programmes and activities everywhere in order to fight random development.

In response to the tragedy on Simpson Road, a friend who used to visit friends of hers there said of the monkeys:

“I remember. They’d swing and jump from tree to tree like pros . . . and they were quite daring too. Drove poor George round the bend with their raids into his treasured garden. He drove them out with a catapult, just the way small boys would have done.”

George was a delectable old white man with a formidable collection of hunting trophies and pictures.

His wife was an anaesthetist at the nearby Government hospital. And when he talked about the animals in the bush, it was easy to see. George had many tales to tell about the veld and the bush. One day he said to me, “Dave, this fellow is slow and stupid. Can’t imagine him for dinner. When he shakes his head, maggots drop out of his nostrils.”

George was talking about the gnu or wildebeest, that prolific breeder whose numbers probably ran into hundreds of thousands in the rift valley of East Africa at one time.

I was inclined to agree with him that these fellows are a little dense. They leap into flooded rivers even when they can see the crocodiles bite off huge chunks from their kin.

Cross the river they must, no matter what!

I suppose nature has its own imperatives and what must be: que sera, sera!

It is not only the monkeys that have gone away. I became keenly aware of this while on a visit to Wits in Johannesburg where at the right time of the year the hadida, described as the noisiest bird in Africa, is a common sight on campus.

It flies in from North Africa to escape the winters there and flies back when our own winters start setting in.

The hadida made me nostalgic for the African hoopoe that in the early years of our stay in Gweru visited my garden and orchard each year without fail.

Regrettably, it became necessary to dig out a tree whose roots were beginning to interfere with the foundation of the family house. This tree bore in abundance every year, bunches of small fruit that the birds came to feast on.

The year after we removed the tree, the hoopoe came one more time but soon left for other places. The year that followed after that, there was no hoopoe in my garden, just the ugly crows with their hoarse cackles and an occasional dove.

When I visit the countryside, I find that there is hardly ever a sighting of the secretary bird, the huge bird that makes you think engineers must have been watching it when they invented the aeroplane.

It runs on the ground and steadily increases its speed before it spreads its wings and flaps them for take-off.

Even its landing looks like the prototype landing upon which planes were modelled.

I cannot help the overwhelming feeling that we are depleting the world of some of its wonders. One day we shall find ourselves singing:

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time ago

Where have all the flowers gone?

Young girls picked them, every one

When will they ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

The flowers are just a metaphor for all the things that disappear in time after we allow them to die out.

In the second republic we need, all of us, to apply ourselves diligently to matters of heritage and the environment.

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