Some time in the mid-1970s I lived with my parents on a tobacco farm in the North East of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). The bush war was reaching its climax. Living in the area was becoming more dangerous, so Dad decided to relocate to a sugar cane farm in the South East Lowveld, where it was considered to be (a little) safer.
One night while he was doing his rounds checking the tobacco barns one of the guards, an ancient-looking, wizened old man called Limbikani, sidled up to him and muttered out of the corner of his mouth that he had heard we were leaving. Dad was surprised; we had only decided to move a few days before and had only discussed it among ourselves, at home. It’s amazing how the bush telegraph works!
Limbikani’s next words surprised Dad even more:
“If you don’t take me with you I will put mtagati (bad medicine) on you”.
We had already decided that we would ask Limbikani if he wanted to come with us – he was too old for gainful employment by anyone else and besides, Dad was quite fond of him – but Dad feigned fear of his threat and readily agreed. We later learned that Limbikani was a well-respected nganga (witch doctor) and people would come from miles around to have him throw bones to diagnose illnesses or to give them spells to ward off mtagati.
A few weeks later I was back at boarding school in Harare (Salisbury) and my parents called in to visit me on their way to our new home. The sight of our small, battered pick-up truck, fully loaded with our belongings, Limbikani, Evalina the maid, two Irish Wolfhounds, one Maltese Poodle cross, Moggie the ginger cat, 15 Bantam chickens and Gertie our goat caused much amusement to my fellow students – to me it was normal.
Not long after we had moved Limbikani demonstrated his super-natural powers. Our old truck was on it’s last legs by then and one day it stalled about 200m from our farm gate. Staff were called to help push but no amount of coaxing could get the engine running again. Mum was about to start walking the rest of the way home when she noticed the staff had all stepped back and she heard them murmuring Limbikani’s name. She looked up to see he had materialised, almost from no-where (there had been no sign of him when the pushing was required), and was shuffling out to meet her. He instructed her to close the bonnet – which had been up while she fiddled about in vain with spark plugs and battery terminals – and then pressed his hands on the top of the bonnet several times, muttering under his breath as he did so. After a few minutes of this trance-like behaviour he shook himself, told her he had fixed the car, and motioned for her to get back in and start it. She did so dubiously, not really believing in all this mumbo-jumbo stuff but also not wanting to offend the old man. One turn of the engine and it fired into life – she couldn’t believe it! Limbikani simply shrugged and slowly walked to the gate to open it for her. Mum was now convinced that Limbikani was indeed a nganga but Dad always said she had probably flooded the motor and that it would have started after a while anyway, once the excess fuel had evaporated.
At lunch time one Sunday Limbikani came to the house to request some extra cash; he wanted to go to a nearby beerhall to drink beer and watch a local football match. Feeling magnanimous, probably having imbibed a couple himself, Dad not only gave him the cash but also poured a very generous tot of brandy into a cup and handed it to Limbikani. Limbikani’s eyes lit up, he downed the entire tot in one gulp and immediately burst into song. By the time he reached the end of the driveway he was staggering and it is doubtful that he made it to the beerhall that day. This became a weekly ritual. After a while, the state of Limbikani’s liver being of concern, my Dad tried a different tactic. Instead of handing the cup of brandy directly to Limbikani Dad started placing it on the table, Limbikani would then gratefully take the cup home with him, to enjoy its contents at his leisure.
As Limbikani got older (to me this seemed impossible, he already looked at least 100 years old) his duties in our garden were reduced to some weeding and occasional tidying up. These he would complete in an hour or so and he would then retreat to ‘Limbikani’s Corner’, a grassy part of our garden shaded by a baobab tree, where he could sleep, contemplate life and suck on baobab pips.
One Sunday Limbikani did not appear for his weekly tot. My parents had seen him early in the morning, pottering about as he usually did – although he did not officially work on a Sunday he always came to the garden; perhaps he was bored at home – his little tipple being an added attraction. A few times during the day Dad had stuck his head out the door to call him and by evening when there was still no response he was a little concerned. He strolled down to Limbikani’s Corner, thinking perhaps he had been at the beerhall the night before, was sleeping it off and hadn’t heard the calls – he was quite deaf by now. Dad did find him there, lying on the grass and apparently asleep. But he wasn’t asleep. Limbikani had quietly passed away, in the shade of the baobab tree in our garden.
A couple of days later Dad went back to Limbikani’s Corner to collect up the few belongings of his that were still there. As he bent down to pick up the brandy cup Dad noticed a small plant pushing its way up through the blades of grass and on closer inspection he discovered that it was a baobab seedling. Limbikani was constantly sucking on a baobab pip – this must have been one that he had spat out and which subsequently germinated.
Dad gently dug the seedling up, planted it in a pot and so, in 1982, ‘Limbikani’ became Dad’s first bonsai.
In the years that followed my parents lived in many places, in Mocambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Limbikani went everywhere with them; Dad hadn’t forgotten that warning all those years ago.
Six years ago life had become unbearable for most Zimbabweans, particularly for people like my parents who were living on meager pensions. So they did the only thing they could do – they moved back to the UK. After nearly 57 years living in Africa it was a heartbreaking decision.
And it meant Limbikani’s travels with my parents had come to an end.
He now lives with me. While he was still alive Limbikani told my parents he had been born in Zambia.
He has come home.