I am not quite sure what you might picture if I told you I was going to visit old friends in rural Zimbabwe. But I’m pretty sure it would not be this.
I am sitting on the couch in a crowded living room in the home of our friends Richard and Snoe Ndlovu. Richard is the director at Mtshabezi hospital, and he and his wife took great care of us when we arrived there in 2006 and became our closest friends. As often happens in the evenings here, people have just started showing up. So there are not quite enough seats for everyone, and some people are seated on the floor or perched on the edge of an armchair. There are a few conversations going on around the room — about politics, or the economy, or what was and was not accomplished on a recent trip to town. There is a heated debate about a young woman who is about to be married, and whether she should be following Zimbabwean cultural traditions or set them aside in favour of a more Christian approach. The speakers in the debate are all switching fluidly between English and Ndebele, so I never quite catch what the actual issue is.
Every few moments, in the middle of this conversational chaos, someone will yell out in a way that always strikes me as particularly African. Ow-waaaaaaaaaaa! or Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-eeeeeeeee! And everyone else will stop and look at the television. For whatever else we are doing here — visiting or storytelling or debating — we are also watching professional wrestling.
It was one of the many surprises about life in Zimbabwe for Julianne and me when we lived there in 2007, this obsession with pro wrestling. The kids in the community seemed to know when it was on, and they would cram into the living room until there was no more floor space and sit watching in wonder. The adults were no less into it, and with every big move they would cry out, contorting their bodies or shielding their eyes or ducking their heads, as if someone might leap from the screen and direct the next move at them.
I remember asking Richard once, as we sat in his living room with wrestling on the television, if he knew that it wasn’t real — that the moves were choreographed. He had not known this, and he sat quietly absorbing the news. After a long silence he turned to me and asked, “And what about NASCAR…is that real?”
It is an odd scene, I know, and one that still strikes me as funny. If you looked outside you would see all the hallmarks of rural Africa — there are chickens and goats running around, there are women walking past with water jugs balanced on their heads, and you would not have to walk too far down the road before you started seeing mud huts with thatched grass roofs. And here we are inside, watching Daniel Bryan bodyslam his opponent.
But I share this with you because I want you to have a picture, a little slice of regular life here in Africa, that sets aside the usual cliches. I am not sitting there marvelling that they have so little and yet “they seem so happy.” I am not turning to Julianne and telling her that I came expecting to give to them, but that I ended up receiving far more than I gave. I am just sitting in a living room, hanging out with good, good friends. We are talking, and laughing, and enjoying being together. And it feels like home.