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  • Red Dirt Paths
  • Tani Arness (bio)

I remember it was Bernard who sauntered up behind me in Harare and began to walk me across town to my hotel, warning, "Tani, this street is not safe. I know a guy who robs people here."

And I remember, as usual when I walked with my students or black friends in the city, a policeman (seeing a white American and a notorious street kid) came up and asked Bernard for I.D., and then asked me, "Do you know this person?"


"How well do you know him?"

"I am his teacher."

"Oh. Well, be careful."

Bernard didn't complain. He joked, afterward, saying in his local Shona language, "Man do not bother me, this woman belongs to me." The feminist in me bristled at such sexism yet took solace in the idea that Bernard was different from many of the Shona men in that he, at least, understood enough about American women to bother to laugh at his "joke." After being in the bush where men offered to pay seven mombes [cows] for me as a second wife, Bernard was refreshing.

Bernard Chakwanda, my student, arrived at Ponesai VanhuJunior School, a rural boarding school for "street kids," located near Shamva, Zimbabwe, on the 14th day of a hot, dry August in 1995. His hair clean cut, and his pants and shoes washed but torn, he told me it was his birthday. . . . Only years later do I begin to see how it was there, in the midst of Africa's bush, Africa's red soil and acacia trees, mango trees, political corruption, bare running feet, and plastic bag footballs, in the midst of women's ululations, gyrating [End Page 31] dances, and field-work songs, that I, young and idealistic, started to learn what loving a person or a place can and cannot mean. That sometimes the stakes are high. That you must love a person before you can try to understand him. And that understanding is secondary. That understanding a person may be part of his tragedy as well as not understanding him may be.

Before I had any understanding of Zimbabwe, I felt like one of the guys among my students. I learned how to combat boredom in the bush, to make air guns out of hollowed branches or play games of tossing stones into cow pies, I learned how to eat properly with my hands, how to cook sadza and how to say, "Hey punk, be quiet" in local Shona language slang. I was obsessed; I was with my students before school, in classes, in study halls, in evening programs, on weekend programs. We sang together, danced together, hiked through the bush together. I was inspired! And Bernard latched onto whatever it was that I had to give (love, distraction, American mementos . . . ), and I latched onto his need for it.

In Zimbabwe, my role as teacher was not confined to the classroom. In fact, in many ways the classroom seemed peripheral. I was in a faraway exotic place, and I was thrilled by the baboons, by my students and their exuberant song and dance. At the same time, I was compelled by the tragedies there. I was a naive foreigner, and I think this made it easier to love the people and the place. I was craving "more," and Zimbabwe had plenty of that.

Bernard, like the other students, chose to leave the capitol city of Harare, to leave the hustle and bustle of tall buildings, four-lane paved city streets, fast food restaurants, tourists, and cinemas. They were promised three meals a day in the simple cement dormitories of our rural school, and some chose to bus the three hours north to live and take classes amidst the red dirt paths, wheat and corn fields, ox-carts, and thatch-roofed huts of the bush. However, when these boys (there were very few girls) left the city, they did not leave the social system that they as "street kids" had there.

Bernard was an accepted ringleader. He was older and strikingly handsome, with a charming, bright white smile and a commanding posture, a sort of wiry strut that the other...


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