His Brother’s Keeper

Goodluck Mezembe was a merchant. He owned a little shop on on the highway between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, from which he sold soft drinks, local beer, bread, and other sundries to the people who lived in the small villages in the area. A member of the Shona tribe from Zimbabwe’s eastern Mashonaland Province, Goodluck had come west to Matabeleland right out of Zimbabwe National University with his new business degree. Unable to find work even in the west, Goodluck had taken his meager savings and opened a small shop. Over the years, he had prospered. The majority of his customers were from the Ndebele tribe, but this never bothered Goodluck. He often told his wife Miriam, a Shona who was born in Bulawayo, that it was only the color of a man’s money that counted. He got along with his Ndebele neighbors, even joining them on occasion at the local beer shop in the evenings.

He was accepted them as his was the closest shop to where they lived, and he treated them with respect. For his part, he was happy that most of them had access to South African Rand which they used to pay for their purchases. In 2006, thanks to the central bank in Harare, the Zimbabwean currency, the Zim Dollar, had depreciated to the point where it was worth less than the cost of the paper upon which it was printed.

One neighbor in particular, Goodluck got along with; Ignatius Moyo, an Ndebele who owned a shoe repair shop just down the road from his shop. Ignatius’s eldest son worked for a construction company in Johannesburg, so he always had a good supply of Rand. He bought all of his supplies from Goodluck, and always paid in Rand, so both of them prospered, while many in the area, who accepted local currency, watched their net worth plummet to nothing.

Goodluck was surprised one day to see a group of young men, dressed in what looked like military uniforms, led by an older man dressed in a suit, enter Ignatius’s shop. He didn’t recognize them as locals, but he could also tell that they were not Ndebele. He wondered what a group of young Shona men would want in a shoe repair shop. From where he stood outside his shop, he could see that they wore new shoes.

After a few moments, he heard loud muffled voices from inside the shoe repair shop. This was followed by scuffling sounds, and then the moans of someone who was obviously injured. He was curious, but as had become the custom, he stayed where he was. It didn’t pay to put your nose where it didn’t belong. After a while, the men came rushing out of the shoe repair shop. A couple of them were carrying knobkerries that Goodluck had not noticed before. He also smoke billowing from the shop. Oh my goodness, he thought, Ignatius’s shop is on fire, and those men didn’t even try to put it out. Then, he realized that was because they probably started it.

He waited until they were far down the road, and ran across to the shoe shop. By now, the smoke was quite heavy, and he could see flames licking around the door frame. As he neared, he could see inside. Ignatius lay on the floor in a pool of blood. One side of his head was deformed, and his eyes were open. They did not move. Goodluck knew that his friend was dead, and there was nothing he could do. The flames were too hot to risk getting burned to remove a dead body.

There was no one else around; people were either out in the fields, or at other work, trying to make enough to buy a bag of mealie meal so they could make sadza to keep their families alive. He could not call for help; his telephone had not worked for over a year.

Goodluck turned back and returned to his shop. He went inside and closed the door. He put up the closed sign and retreated to the back where he and Miriam had their living quarters. She was busy preparing the noon meal, sadza with beef stew, his favorite.

“Someone just killed Ignatius and set fire to his shop,” he said to her.

She kept stirring the mushy sadza in the pot, and answered him without looking up. “Probably the Green Bombers,” she said. “They’ve been going after all those who do not support the ruling party.”

“But, Ignatius has never been involved in politics,” Goodluck said. “Why would they want to hurt him?”

“Everyone knows that the people here in Matabeleland hate the ruling party because of what happened in the 1980s. They all support the opposition,” she said. “Besides, he’s Ndebele, so why should you care what happens to him?”

“It just doesn’t seem right,” he said. “Ignatius never harmed anyone. He was just a shoe repairman.”

“He was always complaining about the Zim Dollar,” she said. “Said it wasn’t even good for toilet paper. That’s the same as treason.”

“He was right. The Zim Dollar has become worthless. If we didn’t take payment in Rand, we’d be poor. That’s not treason, that’s just reality.”

She stopped stirring and stood, regarding her husband with narrowed eyes. “Take care what you say, husband,” she said. “It would not do for you to be heard saying such things. As for Ignatius, remember that a good farmer tends to his own fields. A lion in your neighbor’s field is not your problem.”

Goodluck sighed. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “I will attend to my own business. There’s nothing I can do for Ignatius now anyway. I will miss having the occasional beer with him, though.”

“There are plenty of decent Shona men around here you could drink with, you know.”

“Yes, but all they want to do is talk about politics,” he said. “When I drink my beer, I don’t want to talk about such things.”

She harrumphed and turned back to her pot of sadza.

After a few days, Goodluck had pushed the killing of Ignatius from his mind. The police had finally come, but by then, the shoe repair shop was a pile of smoldering ash. They asked a few questions, but were clearly not interested. Goodluck didn’t mention the men he’d seen leaving the shop. He wouldn’t tempt the lion to enter his fields. He said that he’d seen nothing, but when he smelt the smoke had come outside to see the shop in flames.

That was the end of it, or so Goodluck thought. He would, on occasion, stare at the blackened square of ground where the shoe repair shop had stood. Ignatius’s son had come up from Johannesburg and held a memorial service for his father. Miriam had argued against Goodluck going, but he had the opinion of his other customers to consider. They might think poorly of him if he did not at least pay his last respects. He was the only Shona at the service, and the gathering of mourners looked at him suspiciously. Ignatius’s son, William by name, vouched for him as a good friend of his father, so they ignored him.

That night, as Goodluck lay on his bed looking up at the ceiling, he thought of the memorial service. Everyone there was more angry than sad, and even though they ignored him after he was vouched for, it had been clear that his presence was not welcome.

Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door. He started to rise, but Miriam got up and told him to stay where he was. “There is no need, husband,” she said. “I can see who it is.”

Miriam is a good wife, he thought. After a hard day of tending the shop, and enduring the frozen looks of his customers, he was exhausted.

Suddenly, the door to the bedroom was slammed open, and there, standing in the door, were four men that Goodluck at first didn’t recognize. When recognition came, his bowels loosened. The man standing in front was the same man in a suit he’d seen at Ignatius’s shop. The man had a scowl on his dark face.

“Goodluck Mezembe,” he said. “Get up. You must come with us.”

“W-who are you? Why must I go anywhere with you?” Goodluck asked.

“You are not to ask questions,” the man ordered. “Now, get out of that bed, or I will have my men drag you out.”

Goodluck got up slowly. “Okay, I’m up,” he said. “But, please tell me, what is the matter?”

“You have been accused of being an enemy of the state,” the man said. “You will come with us for further questioning.”

Goodluck had heard tales of such nighttime visits. None of those who’d been taken away for questioning had been heard from again. His bladder emptied. Standing there, the front of his shorts wet from his urine, he felt like crying.

“B-but, I’ve never done or said anything against the state. Who could be accusing me of such a t-terrible thing?”

Just then, Miriam pushed past the men and entered the bedroom. She would not look at Goodluck’s face. Suddenly, the realization hit him like a blow to the head with a knobkerrie. The lion had been in his fields all along, and he had no neighbor to come to his rescue.