Letter to My Daughter

Ethel Kabwato

38T Musikavanhu Drive
Area 13


Dear Daughter,

It seems like yesterday when you boarded the 4 a.m. Tenda Bus to Harare …We both laughed  at the name of the bus ... Easy E ... You said it reminded you of me ... the initial, E. Well, I  always thought I was a tough cookie of a mother, not an easy one!

On the morning of your departure, you wore a little black bucket hat. I called it a Tsotsi hat and you protested. It was difficult to read your face because of the black mask and dark sunglasses that you wore but I knew both of us were apprehensive. I gave you my bottle of hand sanitizer when you said you had forgotten yours at home! I reminded you to carry it around with you to lectures, shops, walks, the dining hall ... and you said I don’t have to shout because you know how and when to use hand sanitizer. When you boarded the bus, I told you to open the window and I gave you some more reminders, “Keep your sling bag safe ... always mask up ... always pray ... always protect the weak … scale down on outings ... your laptop costs a fortune, make sure it’s safe …”

You protested, “Mhamha!”  

I consoled myself with the fact that at least, that day, you didn’t have your earbuds in. Your earbuds irritate me because you always shut me out when you don’t want to hear what I will be trying to say to you. Your earbuds have taken my place. I don’t know what other voices you hear when you wear them. Do these voices speak the same language as me? Maybe you would have shut me out with your earbuds if I had told you that I borrowed your bus fare and pocket money from Mai Bothy, our neighbor. I know you don’t want me to borrow money from our neighbors … you have so much pride but, well, pride does not pay school fees. At least now we know what our neighbors think about us … that things are not what they seem. I can’t keep on pretending that I am living my best life. No. Things haven’t been well for some time now.  

When I wanted to tell you all this, the Tenda bus pulled out of the Sakubva Market Bus Terminus. Maybe you saw me waving at you and Easy E as she cruised down past Pick ‘n’ Pay Supermarket, heading towards the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s Mutare Rural Camp past the British Leyland (BL), Paulington, Green Market, Blue Star, and up the Railways Fly Over. I never told you that I went to Pick ‘n’ Pay Supermarket later and sat on the pavement until 6 a.m. when I was able to get a ZUPCO Commuter Omnibus to take me home. The COVID-19 lockdown and curfew has affected access to public transport.

I hear that your lectures for this semester end today at 12 noon. This comes a day after the “official” report that 28 people had died of COVID-19. I know two by name. These are the griefs we will have to talk about when you are home. There have been so many deaths in the  few weeks that you have been away. It has been hard ... too difficult not to attend these funerals ... it has been difficult to think about how these bereaved families are coping. We still take turns to go round collecting mealie meal and money for chema to assist bereaved  families. Our small community in Area 13 still tries to make life bearable despite the  lockdown and the COVID-19 regulations. The opposition party councilor, Mr. Dube, helps them with firewood, transport, and water. When Teacher Gufu died, he brought a bowser of  water from the city council’s fire brigade offices. It has now become a tradition for him ... I like his consistency. Both the ruling party and opposition members will vote for him in 2023.  He is a man of the people. I am telling you all this and yet you will be home soon ...  

I returned Mai Bothy’s money on 30th of June ... I thought you were still there until the end of July when I would have been able to raise money for your bus fare. Intercity travel has been banned again. How do they expect you to come home? When lockdown was announced, why did they not close down all tertiary institutions? Before you travel, make sure you get a police clearance letter. But I am not saying that this will exempt you from paying bribes at roadblocks … They will let you travel, but only if you pay them so I will have to send a little more for you to pay at roadblocks, otherwise you will be stranded. This lockdown does not make sense at all if it’s causing so many problems for us.

You have been “busy” these past weeks, I noticed. Before you left, you told me you had student representative council (SRC) elections at the university and you were campaigning for the candidate of your choice. Remember I told you to scale down on these activities? You looked so restless and excited in the few videos that you sent. I liked that one of you and your friends “toyi-toying” around the campus with your trademark Tsotsi hat, Steve Biko t-shirt, and black sling bag (I hope you still had the sanitizer that I gave you). When I asked you, you told me that the SRC elections are the only elections that will ever be free and fair in this country and that 2023 has already been decided. You told me about the two student unions and how politicians use them to gauge the mood of the citizens and whether or not we are ready for a general election. You also told me your fears and I told you to delete all messages that you had sent me on Whatsapp in case they came for you. I admire your honesty, courage, and activism. You also had your sad moments ... the candidate you supported in 2020 defected after winning the SRC elections ... his neat, unique campaign stickers are still on your brown, leather handbag ... your most prized possession.

I wanted you home when the university said they wanted you. I wanted you home when they did not give you enough time to raise money for your fees. I wanted you home when, on the day you left, we were not sure whether you would get accommodation on campus. I wanted you home when you assured me that you will probably have to “squat” with friends. In my ignorance, I told you that the new dispensation now had the opportunity to make history because the university still had halls of residence which had no names ... the new complexes which were waiting to be named after “our new heroes” of 2017 ... you laughed and said,

“Mhamha, please never say this when my friends come home. They will laugh at you … those buildings have been there since the eighties, I think. Well, I don’t know but they are pretty old. It’s just like what they did with most of the township schools ... you taught at Kuwadzana One High and there is Kuwadzana 2 ... Kuwadzana 3 ... same name but different numbers ... you told me that you once taught at High 4 and I asked you which one then you said, ‘Mufakose ... here there’s New Complex 1, New Complex 2, New Complex 3. Your liberation war heroes probably don’t know that we still have places that don't have names …’”

I wanted you home before they started telling us about Delta ... I wanted you home when they started counting the nation’s losses. I wanted you home each Tuesday when the cabinet met and announced new COVID-19 measures and “forgot” that you and thousands of other students were away from home. I wanted you home when I phoned you and you said some of your friends were commuting and might not make it home before curfew ... I wanted you home when they closed churches and informed us that beer halls and bottle stores would remain open. I wanted you home when I saw people converging at political rallies in the midst of a pandemic and yet they said funeral gatherings shouldn’t have more than 30 people. You assured me that your class of more than 150 had been split into two but you had been separated with all your friends... I told you that, still, the number was bigger than the 30 they wanted at funerals. You laughed. Your laughter was tragic.

Now that Easy E will not be able to bring you back home to us because of the inter-city travel ban, I don't know what to do. Maybe the dean of students will organize something for all students. The state controls public transport. Maybe they will give you ZUPCO buses. I only have a few hours to look for your bus fare. Maybe I will ask your Aunt Linda for some money. Hopefully, she will send it to you via Mukuru, World Remit, or Western Union. I will not bother Mai Bothy again. She also has problems of her own.

Although I want you here with me, I am secretly hoping that they will decide to keep you there a little longer, test you for COVID-19, and with a bit of luck on your side, they might make you access the vaccine before you leave. These are not problems of your own making. Someone has to take the responsibility to make sure that you are not a danger to the communities that you have come from and are going back to. I am thinking of your grandfather. He will be 93 on the 17th of July. I am thinking of Gogo and how she is looking forward to her 73rd birthday in October. Despite being diagnosed with hypertension, I am still enjoying the euphoria of being in my fifties and would love to see my grandchildren (chuckle). The ending could be tragic if we are not careful.

Of course, I want you home but this might have dire consequences. We both know how irritable you become when online lessons make us feel “cheated” and we have to start thinking of managing your mental health. I don’t want to start thinking about all these things. Your mental health is more important. Sekuru and Gogo’s health also matters.  

I wanted you home on the day you left home. I wish I had taken a picture of you, your little black sling bag slung carelessly across a black, Steve Biko revolutionary t-shirt partially covered by a long black denim jacket over black slim-fit jeans, your small masked face peeping out of the Easy E window ... your black Tsotsi hat firmly planted on your small head ... and your brown, oval-shaped sunglasses (at 4 a.m.) hanging precariously on your mask-clad nose ... a powerful reminder of the youthful activism and restlessness built in you ...

I wanted you home when you turned 21 on the 3rd of June and you could not be home ... I wanted you home on June 16th when I knew you were wearing your Steve Biko t-shirt and celebrating Day of the African Child. I wanted you on June 25th, the day of the SRC elections, when I saw pictures of you holding a placard, toyi-toying and dancing to a revolutionary song; I knew we were going to read about you in history. A politician had been born. I wanted you two days later, on the 27th of June. You were only eight years old when a dark cloud hung over our nation. In June 2008 there was a presidential run-off when Robert Gabriel Mugabe decided to cling to power ... and there was bloodshed. Some people say the army and those close to Mugabe made him stay when he wanted to step down. The opposition refused to take part in the run-off and he declared himself the winner of that election. We may never know the truth because the revolutionaries have been changing their stories and their place in history. Do you remember when I told you that they were now saying the former vice president, the first female VP, never “dropped” Ian Smith’s army helicopter during the liberation war? Yet we read about her bravery as a young war of liberation commander in our history books. Who knows what lies or what truths await us?  

Why am I telling you all this when we are expecting you home in less than 48 hours? Whatever decision the government and the university make today, my dear daughter, keep strong and stay safe. Mask up. Sanitize. Observe social distance. Do not discuss politics with anyone. Stay out of trouble ... the future belongs to you. It does not belong to the hand that is rocking your cradle now. That hand does not rule the world. Listen to your conscience. Do not let them own your mind.

I know I sound like a textbook or a newspaper billboard!!!

Child, I hope you have been patient enough to read this long letter to you. Until we meet again ...


Mhamha (Momae)

Born in Mutare, Zimbabwe, Ethel Irene Kabwato trained as a secondary school teacher and holds a BA in Media Studies. Her work is featured in anthologies that have shaped literary spaces in Africa and the world, such as New Daughters of Africa (Myriad Press), Sunflowers in Your Eyes (Cinnamon Press), Poetry International Website (Netherlands), Writing Free (Weaver Press), and Ghetto Diary (Zimbabwe Publishing House), an anthology that was selected as a set book for advanced-level literature students in Zimbabwe. Her poetry is included in Between Two Rocks, (edited by Ben Gaydos, University of Michigan-Flint) in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Cultural Centre in Detroit (ZCCD). In August 2023, Kabwato was the ZCCD/Litfest research writer-in-residence in Detroit.

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