Wednesday 23 December 2015

Palombe: in memory of a remarkable man

The headman, if not up in the hills farming, is to be found sitting in the shade of his veranda, with a bible cradled in his hands. Now there is no sign of him,  just a door shut to the rain.

Palombe Blues
A wiry, mature man with a shaved head strolls down the beach towards me. He has an air of confidence indicating authority. He is barefoot and dressed in slightly ragged white trousers, and a yellow shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

“How are you, I am Palombe, the head man of the village.”

He speaks slowly, pronouncing each word clearly and deliberately, as if they are of special significance. He questions me, asking where I come from, where I have travelled, where I am going after Ruarwe. As we talk his handshake changes rhythmically over and back, from a full grip with thumbs interlocking, to a usual Western grip. He seems to be assessing, gently weighing me. For a few moments time stops, and the bustle and chatter of people melt into silence, bright colours blur and soften, the sun loses its burning heat, and everything fades, becomes muted and distant, except Palombe’s gentle hand clasping mine, and the sympathetic, warm fatherly tone of his voice.

We walk up the beach to his house; a modest, mud-brick building with a small ornamental front garden, the entrance of which is marked by an archway made of sticks interwoven by a creeper. The doorway is shaded by the overhanging grass roof. He disappears inside and returns with a chair and offers it to me. He then calls a young boy, who happens to be nearby and gives him some instructions, at which the boy runs off to return a few minutes later with another chair.

“This is my house. I know it’s not much” he says, and smiles politely, but also with relish at having an unexpected guest.

“I live here with my wife. Come, sit down you must be tired. I’ll ask my wife to make some tea.”

“Thank you, that would be nice,” I say.

“That would be nice, “ he echoes after me.

Under the shade of the grass roof the air is cool, and there is a stillness that seems to spread out into the surrounding village like a magic carpet.

“Would you like to come in and have a look around,” he says, and ushers me in, lifting his hand up to my head to stop me from banging it on the low doorway. The narrow passage is dark and claustrophobic after the brilliant sunlight. There are two small rooms with simple wooden beds, and a larger room with white washed walls that give a comparative sense of spaciousness. It has a table, but no chairs. At the back of the house, facing out to the Lake is a small yard partitioned by grass screens. Part of the area is roofed and has a fireplace for cooking.

Palombe’s wife brings a tray, with cups and a white ceramic teapot, and places them on the table. As she does this Palombe’s eyes guide my attention towards her and, with a gesture of his hand, intoning each word with the reverence of a prayer, he says:

“This is my wife. Her name is Rebecca”.

Rebecca smiles. She is Zimbabwean, with light skin and delicate features of the people from Mutare region. She makes a small curtsey and holds out her hand for me to shake. Palombe brings in the two chairs from outside and we sit down. He pours the tea and offers me sugar. When I decline, with a look of astonishment he says: “Tea without sugar,” then proceeds to pile five or six spoonfuls into his cup.

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