The excerpt below follows two unstoppable forces, a cargo train thundering out of Harare towards the small town of Miner’s Drift, and the competitive egos of adolescent boys. It comes from Chapter 2 titled, “Tracks Of My Fears, 1984” in my debut novel, Avenues By Train.
This train is a juggernaut of extraction. Powering in and carrying out. Nothing natural capable of standing in its way. It is at once a literal locomotive and also the recurring metaphor through which this coming-of-age story is told. Of the contesting forces, human, natural, and supernatural, that pull in different directions, and in their wake, lies their impact on individual lives.
In a manner inspired by the cyclical rhythms of the mbira dzeVadzimu, an instrument native to the Shona, and crucial to the ceremonies during which the ancestors are implored, Avenues By Train employs the train as the conduit of capitalist ambition, and its attendant excesses, in the colony and post-colony.
To the protagonist, Jedza, the train is the corridor of migration, kinship and also, the vessel of his anguish. These national and personal encounters are layered in a polyphonic narrative. What happens to the land and its people over centuries overlaps and loops endlessly in melodies both joyous and melancholic.
I chose this passage as an illustration of the cyclical nature of time and events in Avenues By Train. The wheels of the train turn, not unlike cycles of trauma re-enactment, where the disenfranchised attempt to regain agency and mend psyche raptures, national and personal.
Extract from Chapter 2: Tracks Of My Fears, 1984
We pass by Takunda’s dad’s bakery to pick him up. He launches into us. “You guys should have been here ages ago. Where were you? I’ve been waiting and waiting.” Dalitso and I just exchange glances. We know he will calm down as soon as he is done acting like a little power-drunk bully. I ring my bell and look to the side but keep Takunda in the corner of my eye so I can see his reaction.
He mumbles something about his bell not working and how his dad can fix it but he’s getting him a new one instead. Takunda is so easy to work up, if you know how. He’s in a new red Spiderman t-shirt, same as mine. I got mine first, naturally. Our cycles are the same colour, red, because everyone knows red bikes go faster than blue ones. I have a Raleigh that you can fold in the centre, which is cool. Takunda has a Raleigh too but his bike is a Chopper with the long handlebars and a 3-speed gear. It’s not that I don’t like Choppers but that long seat is just weird.
Also, who puts a small front wheel and big back wheel on the same bike? When we eventually set off, after Takunda is done being angry, we pass a couple of kids from our school and he changes down his gears for no reason. Such a show-off. He thinks his bike is faster because of the little gear thing but we’ll see. Mine has a louder bell and it works.
Back at Harare station, the switchboard lights up and the signals are working again. The driver rouses from his dreamless sleep feeling as if a steam train is charging around in his head. When he gets up, his insides stay behind on the bench while he staggers onto his feet, and when they then come up into his belly, they swim up into his throat. He heaves painfully, then wipes his mouth with his sleeves.
He has had rough mornings before but this one is laced with trepidation. He could still get this day off as sick leave but he also knows that he is walking a tightrope with all his drunken missed days. He shrugs and heads to the platform boards. He needs no prompting from the station manager, knowing he has to make up for lost time.
He pulls out of the yard and accelerates out of the city, sliding out with well-practiced mechanical motions. He has done this routine so many times that the responses are automatic: he flips switches, turns knobs and pulls levers in a daze. He usually blows the horn when passing Chenga Ose. It is his good-luck ritual. A part of him wishes his neighbours knew it was him driving the engine. Indeed, he has told people often about his important position, bragged while drunk.
This morning a fog hangs over Chenga Ose. A fog unlike any he has seen at this time of the year. The white orb appears as an opaque wall across the tracks and extends into nothingness in each direction. The engine ploughs into it. A chill passes through him and brings on another volley of coughs and sneezes.
The locomotive is going at full tilt and blows through the white blanket, the wagons rattling at pace. A sense of dread washes over him as he takes measured breaths to calm himself down.
The train emerges from the fog and a pastoral landscape opens out with the city behind him. The train’s contact to the electric line above the train sings out and the contact of the wheels on the rails responds. The trucks rattle on as the train sweeps into wide curves and down through gently sloping valleys. It cuts through the hillside along a dyke and the red banks of earth zip by in a blur.
On the other side, a cluster of shops, a crossing, fields and fields of some crops too young and low-growing to recognise, another cluster of shops, and beyond the fields, a weir that strains to contain a river whose pent-up waters are eager for a signal to erupt.
If the driver were to observe these hills that he has passed mindlessly on numerous trips, he would count seven. Seven hills that the ancients may have considered sacred. If he were to hear the voices echoing around the granite boulders, what would he hear? Pleas from those who came before, not to blast away the hillsides?
Not to alter the configuration of this granite amphitheatre which lends an elegiac acoustic quality to the rainmaking ululations of old women who brew millet beer? Are these not the hills of Bangidza, the first hills of the first people? Would the voices of the ancients ask the driver what is a road or a railway, and what mighty gods do they serve who demand that they shift mountains and dry rivers?
They would certainly insist that he look more closely at the fields and see the morning sun gleaming on the sweaty backs of farm workers whose fathers and mothers followed these same tracks to break their backs in these fields. They would ask the driver, “Who dares to own land?”
The ancients would want to know if those who cleared this land knew that they were cutting down rain-making trees. It is as if they knew that tobacco would take and take from the soil, depleting it of nutrients. As if the interlopers and forgetful youth did not care to know that the people of the soil embedded the fertile umbilical cords of generations before and generations to come, in the same earth.
The ancestors would warn that to leach goodness from the earth is to starve the people of the soil. They would advise them not to take as if this land never had those who lived upon it and with it, those whom they exiled from it and who now live it in their dreams.
Those who came before would demand that these hills be protected from quarry excavators and mining shafts in which cages and pulleys are worn and strained to the limit. If only the train driver would prise open his heavy eyelids and see these bal-an-cing granite boulders used by the ancestors as granaries, burial sites and worship sites. They would show him these forgotten battlefields, sites of ambush and the desecration and betrayal of a people.
Then, he would feel the ground shake, ever so slightly, as the train thundered across rivers that had been cut off and around valleys that had been flooded. If only he would see that our people now fish and hunt under cover of darkness. If he were to listen, allowing the ancestors to bite his ear, he would feel each sideways shake of the carriages as the spirits in the hills leaned into the train.
Alas, the train attains top speed and locks in. The driver sounds his horn and conquest reverberates through the hills. The train swerves again and thunders on, fortissimo, unstoppable.
Avenues by Train is forthcoming Autumn 2023 from Cassava Republic Press. You can pre-order at Cassava Republic.
About the Author:
- Farai Mudzingwa is a Zimbabwean writer whose fiction is influenced by music, our interior selves and alternate realities. He has previously published a short fiction – Green Shadows in the Kiya Kiya Republic – and short stories in Weaver Press anthologies, Kwani?, Writivism, Storymoja and Short Story Day Africa. His profiles, literature reviews and political essays have appeared in New Frame, Chimurenga Chronic, The Africa Report, New Humanitarian, TRT News, Contemporary& and Mail & Guardian.
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