Stanley Makuwe is an award-winning playwright who combines writing with a full-time job as a psychiatric nurse. His play Black Lover will appear in Auckland Theatre Company's Back on the Boards festival at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in September, Government restrictions allowing. Black Lover will also tour to Hawke's Bay Arts Festival in October and Taranaki RESET 2020 in November. www.atc.co.nz
I was born in Zimbabwe in 1972 when the war was really bad and, by the time I was 6 or 7, it was even worse. My mother worked for a white family in a small town about 50km from my village. She wasn't allowed to leave their property to go home each night, so I was raised by my mother's sisters in Shurugwi. Because there was so much fighting in our village, there were times we had to leave our home and sleep in the bush or in other people's houses. One night we slept in a cave.
As children, we knew all the rules. We couldn't wear white or red, because if you wore those colours and were running in the bush, you'd be an easy target if someone was shooting at you, so we had to wear dark clothes. We weren't allowed to say anything about the war or ask questions. If we were told to keep quiet, we kept quiet. If we were told to eat very fast, we ate very fast. I still eat really fast today, because that's how I was brought up. We didn't know where our next meal was coming from either.
For me, the warplanes were the worst thing. They were so frightening. When they circled the village, you didn't know what would happen next. One night, the freedom fighters, Mugabe's army, they were drinking homebrew when they were ambushed and killed. In the morning, an army truck came to our gate with the bodies. They hung the bodies up and we were all made to look. Another incident, we were hiding in our house while other houses were being burnt down. This army guy came to our door. He pushed the door open with his gun. We saw him open it and he saw us, we were just little kids with an old lady who was sitting with us. All he did was ask for water, then he walked away. I don't know why he did that but for me, that was one of the most outstanding moments.
I didn't see my mother often and when she did visit, she'd bring second-hand clothes from the white children she worked for. But the people she worked for had girls, so sometimes I wore girls' clothes but no one cared. People never said, "Oh you're wearing girls' clothes," because it was not an issue back then. Maybe these days things have changed.
High school was good. The war was over and when I was about 15 I lived alone in the village. My brother and sisters were elsewhere, my uncles had gone to the city to work and my aunties had married. I lived in a traditional African hut made of mud bricks and grass. We had no electricity, so I cooked over a fire and every night I had candlelit dinner. Because there was no running water, I'd collect water from the river and carry it home in a bucket. I cooked for myself, I grew vegetables and went hunting. Mostly I caught rabbits and birds. I ate a lot of birds. After school, I'd walk into the river and wash and drink from it. We never got sick, drinking the same water as the animals, the same water we washed in. I think your body gets used to it.
Mugabe's problems are well-documented but, for a while, he was a hero. When he came to power and the war ended, there were all-night parties. We'd get together in the village and sing and dance, the kids would play war games and pretend to be soldiers. Mugabe was good at pushing for education and he inspired us to be educated like him and speak English like him. He also changed a lot in terms of women's rights. Those are some of the positive things we can say about Mugabe, in spite of what happened later.
After school I applied for everything – police, army, teacher, nurse – you take whatever you're offered and I was very fortunate to be offered nursing. My grandmother on my mother's side had mental health issues. Stigma around mental health has always been with us but back then it was worse. She was a nice lady, she looked after herself, she was clean and capable of looking after me but she was always talking to herself and sometimes nasty things were said. Looking back I think she had schizophrenia and in 1984 she walked out of the house and hasn't been seen to this day. Most likely she is dead but it still haunts my family. That was one of the reasons I chose to specialise in psychiatric nursing.
When I started writing, I wrote short stories and a book was published. I tried to write a novel but there were too many words so I tried writing a play. During my final year of nursing training, there was a big strike. All the nurses and doctors, everyone working in the hospital, went on strike and the students were left to run the hospital. A lot of people were dying and in one night shift I took six bodies to the mortuary. We were throwing them, one on top of another, dead bodies piling up. We had to do what we had to do but there was no dignity for them, so I thought, "What if these people could talk? And if they could talk, what would they say?" So I wrote a play with dead bodies talking and it did really well. It was even nominated for a BBC award but, when we tried to put it on, the police stopped it.
I always dreamed of coming to New Zealand. I saw it in a book at school and thought it looked beautiful but I had no idea where it was. Because life was hard in Zimbabwe, a lot of people went to the UK but I didn't want to go there. I wanted New Zealand but I didn't have the money. I had a doctor friend who had money and I asked if he'd buy me a ticket. I told him I'd pay him back when I arrived and he said yes. Then he changed his mind but I said, "You can't change your mind, you promised." He'd tell me to go away, to leave him alone but I kept on 'til he paid for my ticket. I could never have afforded the ticket if he hadn't helped because salaries in Zimbabwe were so bad. We were paid monthly and, by the time you were paid, you already had no money, completely on zero. But I kept to my word. As soon as I had a job, I paid back the money and we remained friends until he died.
I arrived in New Zealand on May 31, 2002 and things flowed from the moment I landed. Back then Zimbabwe was still part of the Commonwealth, so I didn't need a visa. The Customs man looked at my passport and asked what I was doing. I said I'd come to find work as a nurse. He asked no more questions, just stamped my passport and let me in. Then I paid for my wife to come over and doors opened for us. It was easy and straightforward and we had hope. The future looked bright, we didn't have to struggle anymore and for that I'll always be grateful.