Reflections, Thoughts and Opinions From Africa.
|Last week my marketing manager and I went on a city tour of Mbare, Harare's first township. We'd been invited as editor and representatives of my new travel magazine…
I can't say too much about the tour in this blog – well, not yet. It was exciting (200,000 people live in this suburb), and I need to save those experiences for our website and our Footprints blog. But what I can write about is the Pioneer Cemetery. Situated opposite Mbare, it is the place where we had arranged to park our car and meet our guide, Garikai.
My maternal grandfather, who died 1958, is interred at the Pioneer Cemetery. Mum tells me he did not want a tombstone, so his grave is unmarked. The Caretaker, who asked not to be named, told me that if I know his full name and his date of death it will be in the register and he can show me where my grandfather rests. That's something I intend to do in the near future, but last week I did not have the time. My shock at the state of the Pioneer Cemetery must surely have showed on my face, because The Caretaker spent a lot of time telling me how much he and his team of three municipal workers try to maintain Harare's oldest cemetery.
Despite the fact that three of its borders are busy main roads (including the road to Beit Bridge, the Zimbabwe border post town with our main economic partner South Africa) there is a solemn reverence to this piece of Harare. Even the appalling amount of rubbish/trash strewn between and over the tombstones does not detract from the peace of the final resting place of over 5,000 people. The Caretaker told me the living do not show any respect for the cemetery's inhabitants: "They sit on the gravestone and take selfies with their cellphones," he whispered, shaking his head. “Sometimes they come and sit on the graves in the evenings and on weekends, drinking beer.”
The cemetery is divided into sections. The Anglican/Church of England section and the Roman Catholic sections seem to be the largest. Harare's Jewish and Greek population are further away, and not as large. The most recent burial was that of Kiki Divaris, matriarch of one of Harare's oldest and most respected Greek families. I did not walk between the Greek and Jewish tombstones, but they appeared to be reasonably well cared for compared to many tombstones in the other sections.
Even in death religious and racial segregation is and was observed…
There is a large section that was reserved for the "native" population living and working for some of the first settlers in Salisbury - Harare's pre-independence name. Time was not on our side, so from a distance I saw the mounds over each grave in what The Caretaker told me is the "African’s graveyard”. The amount of litter strewn around the weeds on each sad, neglected mound was made sadder by the fact that there are no tombstones on these graves.
The most well-maintained section houses the war graves, which includes 66 men from the British South Africa Police and Rhodesia Native Regiment. White tombstones contain the name, rank, regiment, date of death and age of almost 260 soldiers who served in both World Wars. The flowering shrubs between the tombstones are neat and appear to be watered, and the lawn is trimmed and tidy. A couple of the soldiers interred there were middle-aged when they died, but most were in their early 20s. Apparently members of one of the Commonwealth organisations hold annual ceremonies to remember the war dead at Pioneer Cemetery, and they also take care of the soldiers' graves. I find this incredible as our president pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth in 2002... but it's comforting to know there are some people who want to take care of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, regardless of a dictator's political posturing and manipulations.
The Caretaker told me nobody comes to take care of their family member's graves. I imagine that is because so many of the pioneer families have left Zimbabwe, and are dispersed all over the world. Many tombstones look unkempt; some have sunk into the soil and sit as a lopsided address and notification as to someone's final resting place. Others have had their brass decorations removed, leaving a memory in small circular depressions in the marble or granite in the shape of a cross or the letters of a name.
I've been fascinated by cemeteries and graveyards since I was a child. I'm not afraid of dead people; the living are far more dangerous than a pile of bones resting underneath six foot of earth. Cemeteries are history. They are a record of our ancestors, places where families and friends once gathered to say a final farewell to somebody they loved. Most of those people interred at the Pioneer Cemetery left their homes in England and Europe to move to the country called Rhodesia, and they died in a land far away from their place of birth. Now their descendants have left, many returning to those same lands from where their ancestors originated.
I want to find my grandfather's grave. I want to clean it up, and tidy it and plant a beautiful and hardy shrub over his final resting place. I am his descendant. I am still here, and I want him to know I have not forgotten him. Because if he hadn't moved to Salisbury I would not exist. He is part of my own personal family history. I don't want to think of him forgotten in a dirty burial ground.
To the solemn graves, near a lonely cemetery, my heart like a muffled drum is beating funeral marches.