Come December the year folds its wings like a great, tired bird, and they return home for Christmas.
One minute it’s quiet and the next they are swarming, spewing, spilling – just eating up the place and squeezing breath out of the air. When the air gags and chokes, they just keep squeezing and squeezing and squeezing. Diaspora; they are famished for their land and are savage in their love, and they don’t care if they draw blood.
The ones from South Africa always get here first like somebody set their feet on fire and pointed them to the road.
Big luggage. Trendy clothes. Quick accents. Gleaming cars thunder down streets and drench us in dust. We give way; we are neither upset nor envious because we know they do not own the cars, that they’ll never own them. When these ones speak to us with those new accents – the weight of feathers – they never meet our eyes. Likewise, we find other places to look – the elegant colour of a printed shirt, the pointed tip of a shoe, the magnificent glint of an earring.
They walk with the gait of the aged, feet savour the earth, reluctant to part with the ground. This is their prayer that the land remembers them.
We are careful not to let our eyes rest too long on the scars on their bodies. We also do not ask about the ones never to return, those who perished in the shanty fires over there, bodies burned black because they came from another country.
There’s not much to say about the ones from Botswana. These just look battered, like Sipho there, not even twenty and you’d think he was an old, old man. Hands of rubble, his body drags after him when he walks – a thin thing falling apart. It’s all that working in those Botswana fields, it’ll do that to a person. Always, we watch these ones return and think, why even go when you’ll come back looking like this?
You can tell the ones from America and Britain and Dubai and them because these ones come by air. They are also the richest: British pounds, American dollars, euros, francs, what-what. Any money you can think of they have, but then they are always careful to spend it, you’d think they’ve bled and slaved for it. They walk with the gait of the aged, feet savour the earth, reluctant to part with the ground. This is their prayer that the land remembers them.
When these ones come bearing children who don’t speak our languages, who are sickened by our foods, who are afraid of dirt, we avoid their eyes, we hold the children to the sun like sad tokens and smile. But what we really want to ask the parents is, ‘What have you done?’ When these ones pounce with gadgets and take pictures of everything they see we are patient with them because we know that this is what they must do in order to survive over there.
Come December the year folds its wings like a great, tired bird, and they return for Christmas.
NoViolet Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, she now lives in New York, where she is a Truman Capote Fellow and lecturer in English at Cornell.