Week Seventeen Prompt: Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

"All I know is that every time I go to Africa, I am shaken to my core." 

Stephen Lewis

Sean finds the turtle shell on his grandparents farm outside of Harare. It is empty, sunbaked and dried out and so, so cool. He picks it up, tiny hands clasping the grooved surface, white against green, determined. He isn’t worried about the fact that it’s dirty, or that something has died in there and rotted out and that he could get an infection. He does what every other six-year-old boy would do. He straps it onto his back, cuts his mother’s tablecloth into strips, ties those strips around his forehead, ankles and wrists, and tells everyone he knows (and some he doesn’t) that he is a teenage mutant ninja turtle.

Now all he needs is a knife.

Sean makes knives in his dad’s factory; long jagged pieces of steel torn off from discarded sheet metal lying on the factory floor. Sean watches the orange sparks skitter with the dust motes in the factory air; watches his knives against the grinder, sharpened by the workers who won’t ever let him use the machine himself.

Sean eats with the workers, small white hands mingling with their large black ones in the bowl of sadza nyama nemuriwo, rolling hot sticky gloops between his fingers, slipping them into his mouth before it gets cold. Friday laughs at him, white teeth bright and flashing as he shows Sean how he makes it. The steam warms Sean's face as he leans over the bowl, breathing it in. He has never tasted anything more delicious.

Years pass, and Sean’s parents worry about him. They worry for his safety, because a friend of theirs has just been shot trying to pick her kids up from school. They worry because one of Sean’s friends found her dad’s gun, put it to her belly and pulled the trigger. They worry because blacks and whites are dying and there’s no food or petrol left and Sean won’t be a boy much longer and pretty soon he might have to use his toy knives for survival and his parents don’t think it will be enough against all this history and hate and corruption.

It breaks their hearts, but they leave, because they are in a position to do so. 

Sean brings his Australian girlfriend to Zimbabwe when he is twenty-five. She has never been in a place where the difference between white and black is so pronounced before. 

She brings a journal. “I’m going to find out everything,” she tells Sean and he smiles. That’s how she shows she’s here for him.

She talks to everyone, as much as she can, because she wants to understand this sad and lovely place Sean comes from. This country which has fought itself broken and back again and she wants to know why.

Everything is solid here; the air, thick and overwhelming, the ground beneath her feet dirt red and rich and green, so green she can't believe it. The houses and the furniture, everything seems to be carved out of the earth, hewn from rocks and trees and there since forever.

Here, nothing comes from Ikea and there is no such thing as Tupperware. The people here draw warm, easy breaths into their hard working lungs, people who, according to Knowledge, the bus driver she talks to, can do anything. He says the people of his country could do anything given half the chance, and she can see that he is hoping with all his might for that half a chance to come along.

She speaks to a farmer who immigrated to Zambia after being thrown out of Zimbabwe, and he is bitter and broken and trying not to be. “As long as you have this white skin? Ah sut, you are just a visitor. You don’t belong.” He is speaking more to himself than to her and she is not prepared for this. She doesn’t know what to say.

Tulani tells her that although things were nicer before, they are getting okay now. He is guarded when she asks him about the election coming up (whenever Bob decides to call it) and who he thinks will win. Tulani does not have the luxury of an opinion, but he hopes things will get better for him, his family and his country.

The pilot she talks to tells her that 2002 was a bad year; the year they all nearly left. He is lean and careworn. There is something in his eyes she can’t bring herself to look at, because she doesn’t know how to define it, and she has never had that problem before.

She does not understand what has happened here, and her African adventure is not at all what she imagined it would be.

Instead, she has come to an old country, to God’s country, and she has seen sunsets and waterfalls and lions eating baboons and shanty towns and community vegetable gardens and bowls made from cut off pieces of telephone wire sewn together with copper and kids playing soccer with rolled up TM bags and this place, this hopeful hopeless place stirs her blood more deeply than anything she could possibly have imagined.

Sean finds her sitting on his grandma’s spare bed; quiet, unopened journal in her hand. She looks soft and young and fragile like this with a patchwork quilt beside her and her legs tucked up under her.

“Hey,” he smiles at her. She looks up. “What are you thinking about?”

“Oh,” she sighs. “Just,” there is a silence. He waits. “Everything I guess. This place,” she gestures vaguely.

“It makes you want to save it, you know?” She is earnest, her hands fisted at her sides. “But there's too…It's too…You can’t.”

She knows how naïve she sounds and hopes he won’t make fun of it. She feels impotent and inadequate and everything she has never felt before in her first world life. Her intentions, her words, her journal are no use here.

“No, you can’t,” Sean agrees. He slips an arm around her waist. “It’s just going to have to save itself.”

Like it? Vote for it! 

31 thoughts on “Week Seventeen Prompt: Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

  1. I loved this entry, particularly your descriptions of Sean as a child–from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to knife carrier.

    “Here, nothing comes from Ikea and there is no such thing as Tupperware.”

    Great line!

    “The people here draw warm, easy breaths into their hard working lungs, people who, according to Knowledge, the bus driver she talks to, can do anything.”

    There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, I just kept stumbling over it for some reason. Probably because I didn’t expect to see Knowledge used as a name.

    Wonderfully written!

    Dan

    • Everyone has awesome names over there, it threw me a little fitting them into this piece. Thank you so much for your lovely comments, the story about the little boy is 100% true. I’m glad it worked for you. Am slowly working my way through the entries, expect to see a comment coming your way!

  2. I have a friend I work with from there. His parents used all they had to send him to school in the US. He misses home, but he says to return would be a death sentence for him. He talks of it. But never having been there or seen the fighting or corruption its difficult. He says only his country can settle the civil war raging. no outside diplomacy will bring change,

    Well written and though provoking.

    • It’s strange, but it seems to be only people who are from there or who spend time there come to that conclusion- there is no way to help, it has to help itself. I’m usually such an advocate for an individual making a huge difference, but that individual really needs to come from there and understand all the issues fighting against progress to even begin to make a difference. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful response.

  3. Lovely sentences. I’m a sucker for a well-turned sentence.

    My heart breaks for the human species. I guess, like the girl in your story, I have to learn somehow how to let go and let the species figure itself out.

    • Aww! Thank you! You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear that.
      It really really helps put things into perspective visiting that place, and while I’m normally a huge advocate for one individual making a difference and all that, when I look at the biggest success stories like Gandhi and Mandela, they both came from those places and fully understood the problems facing their homes the way only someone who lives and breaths that life every day can. When you go there you realize how much change needs to come from within. Thank you for your thoughtful response 🙂

  4. I loved the tangibility of this entry, and the humor (mutant Ninja Turtle) mixed with sorrow.

    This country which has fought itself broken and back again
    This was such wonderful phrasing, as was “this hopeful hopeless country.” You can believe in that last part– it seems like a contradiction, but it is two things existing side-by-side and mixing into each other, lapping each other, rising within a single person or an entire nation. It’s all the complexity of reality, which so rarely has neat divisions.

    Lovely story!

  5. I love how you use the child’s and the outsider’s point of view to show the issues without talking about the actual issues – so skillfully done! And the details of the food, the turtle shell, the settler’s speech, are so well-chosen.

    I’ve been visiting my boyfriend in South Africa, and it’s so strange to see the country as it is – the whites all fear it’s headed towards a state like Zimbabwe, and they get a lot of immigrants of all colors from there, too.

    • PS – strictly from a structural perspective, is there a non-cheesy way to tie the turtle image from the beginning in at the end? I wonder if that would increase the power of the piece.

      • I know! It’s such a different life over there isn’t it? A few saffas I met were speaking about how scared they were it would end up like Zim.

        I agree with you completely! I never would have thought to do it, but now that the poll is over I will take another look at it. I’d love to find a way to work it in that isn’t lame. Thanks for your suggestions and comments, I’ve come to really trust your opinion!

  6. Well, now I’m just plain embarrassed – I read your entry days ago and when I saw the poll at the end of the entry, I didn’t think you were allowing comments for some reason -but I just didn’t scroll down far enough! Gah – anyway, I really did want to tell you what a breathtakingly beautiful, heart-wrenching, poignant piece this was to read. Very, very well done.

    • well thank you so much.

      I was so sorry to see you weren’t in idol anymore. I hope you will keep writing, because I believe you have a gift. Thank you for sharing your stories! I know for me, I was touched by them.

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