Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Roasted Bread and Fried Groundnuts- Childhood Comedy

My uncle Marufu
was the most tolerable of my father’s half brothers. His visits to our house in
Killarney were occasions for great entertainment for my brother and me. You see
uncle Marufu, as he insisted on being called, aspired to a greater social
standing, one which he envisioned as being commensurate with his educational
attainment as a primary school teacher amongst subsistence cotton farmers in
rural Gokwe. What better place to acquire the necessary social graces than  in our home and who better to teach them than
his esteemed elder brother, who was the embodiment of class and style. Our
source of amusement was my father’s source of chagrin, and father’s display of
irritation added another dimension to our live comedy shows.

Uncle Marufu (heforbade us to call him babamudini-small father) had faced many challenges in his life. He had suffered a bout of
poliomyelitis in his childhood which had bequeathed him a shorter left leg, a
shortened left arm with a curled up left hand and a left eye which was
determined to look in the direction diametrically opposed to its mate. The
result one might imagine was a bitter, perhaps self pitying individual who was
beaten down. However this was not at all the case. Uncle Marufu was the epitome
of a self assured man. He seemed totally oblivious to the negative attention
that his physical disability drew from those around him as he hobbled about his
business, shouting loudly and always in English. He also seemed unperturbed by
my father’s impatient sighs and rolling eyes when he sat with him on the
verandah asking all manner of questions which my father had absolutely no
interest in answering.

One Saturday afternoon,two days after he arrived, from Gokwe, Uncle Marufu limped his way to the
verandah where my dad sat, glass of wine in hand, legs crossed at the knees and
blowing rings of smoke from a Kingsgate cigarette. It was a warm Saturday afternoon
and my father was enjoying his time at home with no pressing appointments to
attend to. He looked relaxed in a short sleeved cotton shirt and a pair of
khakhi shorts. Otis Reading was crooning his song ‘stand by me’ through the
French doors. My brother and I were playing ‘crazy 8’, one of our favorite card
games, on the floor next to his chair.

“Tisvikewo”. My uncle
announced his presence. I looked up in time to see my father roll his eyes
upward. Uncle Marufu noisily pulled up a garden chair very close to his
brother’s and planted himself into it. I could tell from my father’s body
language that he felt his space was being invaded. However, he did not say

I suppressed a squeal
of laughter when my brother unwittingly said, “Uncle I like your tie.”

“Thanks my boy!” he
replied puffing up his chest to better show off his bright yellow tie. It was
one of those very short but wide ties and my uncle wore it against a pin
striped red and white long sleeved shirt. Tucked into the shirt pocket were a
red Afro comb and a pen. His Khakhi trousers were well ironed with knife edge
lines running down the front. There was a high polish to his ox-blood shoes and
his hair was combed into a neat 2 inch Afro with any unruly tufts of hair
patted into place. I looked up and my eyes met my father’s. He smiled
imperceptibly at me and I quickly looked away.

“Barbara, go and fill
my glass and bring your uncle a drink please.” As I got up and took the glass from my father’s outstretched hand, my
uncle’s loud voice drowned out the music.

“I will take a Scottish
with some stones please!”

I froze on the spot and
waited with baited breath for a response from my father. It came in a tightly
controlled growl through clenched teeth.

“It is Scotch on the
rocks, Marufu.”

My brother got up from
where he had been watching intently and we both ducked into the house. We got
to the kitchen and burst out laughing, falling onto the floor and soliciting a
sound scolding from my mother.

“You two are very
foolish! You are always giggling and cackling like a pair of hungry hyenas!
What is wrong with you?”

The more she scolded
the greater the loss of control on our part. I could not even pause long enough
to explain to my mother the reason why I was in the kitchen. While my brother
and I were guffawing and spluttering at my uncle’s turn of phrase, I knew that he
was out there, leaning into my father and asking a million questions earnestly.
The thought of my father’s facial expressions sent me into another bout of
hysteria. My sides ached as I lay on the kitchen floor with my brother next to
me going through rigors of his own.

Suddenly Dennis sat up
and asked, mimicking my uncle’s deep accented voice. “Eh Bhabra! May you please
make me some more roasted bread?”

At this, I let out a
squeal and rolled over onto my tummy in an effort to ease the spasms that were
mercilessly squeezing my middle. No matter how many times we told Uncle Marufu
that toast was called toast not roasted bread, he obstinately continued to
request his favorite breakfast: roasted bread with Sun jam!

My mother turned away
from us but I could see her shoulders shaking as she tried to hide her
laughter. My brother was relentless and he addressed my mother as uncle Marufu
would: “Maiguru, I see you are frying groundnuts a.k.a Arachis hypoaea!”  (My mother
dry roasted peanuts in a wok- like pan and my uncle decided she was frying them.
Nothing would make him change his mind on that).

My mother started
laughing, a deep rumbling laugh rolling out of her through the kitchen and out
through the French doors onto the verandah. My father, desperate to be saved
from my uncle’s endless chatter yelled out, “Barbara! The drinks please!”

I stood in the door way
to the verandah and was alarmed to find Uncle Marufu coughing up a lung,
clutching a cigarette in his hand with tears streaming from his blood shot
eyes. Apparently he had asked for a cigarette from my father all part of his
quest to become a cultured gentleman. He heaved and jerked in an alarming
manner and I, forgetting that I was carrying a tray of drinks, jumped back a
little in consternation. The stones in the Scottish clinked against the glass
alerting my father of my presence and of the fact that his precious whiskey
(the elixir of life as he called it) was about to be given to his plebian
brother who would not appreciate the searing heat from its amber depths. I
handed the glass of whiskey to my uncle, who took a huge gulp in an effort to
stop the coughing. I watched with pity as he gasped for air and let out a
bellow as though someone had surreptitiously pinched him. He leaned forwards
and held his hand to his chest muttering, “That is very strong stuff. Yes it is
strong for sure! One has to get used to it. Yes I will get used to it.”

One would think that my
father would have been flattered by the extent to which my uncle went to become
more like him. However he was rather contemptuous of my poor uncle and what he
saw as a fickleness of character. I understood my uncle because I too could
have been accused of wanting to be like my father. I was not allowed to indulge
in cigarettes or drink, however his taste in music became mine and the books he
read would ignite my own passion for reading. I also acquired his drive for
perfection and his discerning eye for good quality in all things from food to
clothing and furniture. I felt empathy for my uncle because, where as I had
accepted that there was no way I could ever be this man, who loomed larger than
life, my uncle had decided he would die trying to be like him at all cost. Even
if it included imbibing what he later on admitted to our gardener was the most
foul tasting, toxic smelling liquid he had ever had the misfortune to drink.
How his brother could stomach Scottish with stones was beyond him.

I thought of my uncle
as I made toast with grape jelly for my girls this morning and thought I would
pay him tribute by sharing a comedic piece about him.



  1. I loved the Scottish on the Rocks. What a funny guy.

  2. Thanks Miriam!!in his quest to stand out he used big words and synonyms even when they were not quite appropriate!!!!

  3. i cant stop laughing!!!!! we were evil children!!