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#1 2011
6 min read

Becoming An Insect

There are some things that can never be depicted in Zimbabwe; neither in journalism nor in fiction. But in this short story, a Zimbabwean writer writes under pseudonym about a historical case of ethnic cleansing. This novel would be impossible to publish in Zimbabwe.

Credits Text: Keziboy July 07 2011

Between 1982–1987, the government of Zimbabwe launched a military operation called Gukurahundi in the Matebeleland and Midlands Provinces. Gukurahundi is a Shona word meaning ‘the early rains that wash away the chaff.’ The operation was carried out by the crack 5th Brigade, which had been specially trained by North Korean instructors, who were supposed to fight a dissident insurgency, but went on to massacre an estimated 20–30 000 villagers of the minority Ndebele tribe in an incident that has been seen as an attempt at ethnic cleansing.

In a government gazette published Friday August 27 2010, the Home Affairs Secretary of Zimbabwe announced that it was an offence in terms of the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act (Cinematography and Publications, Production of Pictures and Statutes) for anyone to depict Gukurahundi in any form of artistic expression.

My name is Phanda Khumalo. Phanda means to scoop a hole in the ground in Ndebele. It is really strange, that here I am now, digging mass graves and filling them up with bodies. I sometimes ask myself if I was really destined for this when my parents gave me this name. Perhaps, as the prophecy has now been fulfilled, this is the end of the line for me.

Crazy as it seems, I am happy I am doing this. People need to be buried; no one needs to be told that. I am burying my people, the last good thing I can do for them under these circumstances, to ensure that their souls rest in peace, and that their progeny lead normal lives after all this. I think that some of these soldiers also know that if a dead body is not buried, its soul roams the earth, bothering the living, and especially the murderers, and hence my ending up as the shovel and pick man for them. But there still are some bodies that are not being buried out there. Just like those I saw from the bus when I was coming from the city to the village that last day of my being a free man.

The soldiers say they want to wipe out all Ndebele people. And they are not joking. No they are not. They are killing everybody; men women, children, and even livestock. They are also burning everything in sight too that belongs to the Ndebele – homes, fields, especially granaries, as they also openly say they want to starve to death those they haven’t already butchered. And I am one of their official grave diggers behind their barbed wire fence. We are four gravediggers. Every morning they take us out of the fence and give us picks and shovels, and everyday we dig in a new site in the forest graves the size of a house, and as deep as two men on top of each other. We dig two holes every morning, and fill them up at sunset when they are full of bodies. Sometimes we fill them up immediately after a killing if it is done on site, or later when the bodies are brought in by army truck from somewhere else like the tainted carcasses from a condemned abattoir.


While in the city, I had heard that the soldiers were killing people in the rural areas, but had not been prepared for what I saw that first time I went there. I had never seen a dead person lying on the ground before. Yes I had seen some bodies in coffins in the villages or the township at wakes, but never a corpse lying on the ground with flies hovering over it, and the body swollen like a balloon that is going to burst at any minute. I had never before in my life seen a dog eating a human being in front of people, and the people leaving it to its hellish feast.

I left the protection of the city to come and get my family from Kezi, my village. What could a man do when he knew he had a daughter and a wife in the path of cannibals – you have to try to save them so that they don’t end up as mounds of faeces in the bush. I was working in the city to save their lives too, because there is drought in the village and I could send food from my salary. I couldn’t bring them into the city before the soldiers came; they had to stay in the village as this is where we belong. I was born in the village and my umbilical cord is buried there.

I had heard all along that the soldiers were in Tsholotsho District, in Matabeleland North, I had heard the stories coming from there, that they were killing people like we kill insects in the fields, that they were burning villages, raping women, but I had not thought that they would go to my village of Kezi in Matabeleland South, it seemed so far away from Tsholotsho. And now they are here in Kezi, and we are disappearing from the face of the earth faster than you can cry ‘Dear Lord please save us’.


When the soldiers were deployed into Matabeleland a few months ago, the news on the radio and in the newspapers said they were coming to fight the dissidents who were robbing and killing people in the countryside. But when they got here, it seems they forgot about the dissidents, and decided to concentrate on the villagers; maybe the dissidents had been the excuse they had been waiting for all along to start their massacres – who knows? But whatever, soon there will be no Ndebele people left in Matabeleland, maybe in the towns a bit yes, but not in the countryside. I read about the German Nazis at school, and now I am seeing them born again, this time in 1983 under the skin of a black man.

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