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.”
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