When the prices of everything went up ninety-seven times in one year, M'dhara Vitalis Mukaro came out of retirement to make the coffins in which we buried our dead. In a space of only six months, he became famous twice over, as the best coffin maker in the district and as the Mupandawana Dancing Champion.
Fame is an elastic concept, especially in a place like this, where we all know the smells of each others' armpits.
M'dhara Vitalis was forced to retire three years earlier than anticipated. His employer told him that the company was shutting down because they could not afford the foreign currency. There would not be money for a pension, he was told, the money had been invested in a bank whose directors had run off with it kwazvakarehwa to England. He had been allowed to keep his overalls and had been given some of the tools that he had used in the factory. And because the owner was also closing down another factory, one that manufactured shoes, M'dhara Vitalis and all the other employees were each given three pairs of shoes.
Jeremiah, Bobo, and I saw him as he got off the Wabuda Wanatsa bus from Harare. "Thirty years, vakomana," he said to us, as he shook his head. "You work thirty years for one company and this is what you get. Shuwa, shuwa, pension yebhutsu. Heh? Shoes, instead of a pension. Shoes. These, these..."
The words caught in his throat.
"Ende futi dzinoshinya, all the pairs are half a size too small for me," he added when he had recovered his voice. We commiserated with him as best we could. We poured out all the feeling contained in our hearts.
"Sorry, M'dhara," I said.
"Rough, M'dhara," said Jeremiah.
"Tight," said Bobojani.
We watched him walk off carefully in his snug-fitting shoes, the plastic bag with the other two pairs dangling from his left hand.
"Pension yebhutsu," Jeremiah said, and, even as we pitied him, we laughed until tears ran down Jeremiah's cheeks and we had to pick Bobojani off the ground.
M'dhara Vitalis went back to Harare to look for another job, but who wanted an old man like him when there were millions unemployed. He looked around Mupandawana and was fortunate to find work making coffins. M'dhara Vitalis was so efficient that he made a small contribution to the country's rising unemployment—his employer found it convenient to fire two other carpenters. And that was how he became known as the coffin maker with the nimblest fingers this side of the Great Dyke.
We had seen his hands at work, but of his nimble feet and his acrobatics on the dance floors of Harare, we had only heard. As the person who told us these stories was the man himself, there was reason to believe that he spoke as one who ululated his own praise. As Jeremiah said, "There is too much seasoning in M'dhara Vita's stories."
[But] to appreciate M'dhara Vita's skill is to understand that he was an old man. They had no birth certificates in the days when he was born, or at least none for people born in the rural areas, so that when he trained as a carpenter at Bondolfi and needed a pass to work in the towns, his mother had estimated his age by trying to recall how old he was when the mission school four kilometers from his village had been built. As befitting one who followed in the professional footsteps of the world's most famous carpenter, he had chosen December 25 as his birthday, so that his age was a random selection and he could well have been older than his official years. What was beyond dispute was that he danced in defiance of the wrinkles around his eyes.
Even if he had not gotten his drinks on the house, many of us would have bought him if not his favorite brandy, then a less expensive alternative....We began to gather at the [Why Leave Guesthouse and Disco-Bar] every Friday evening to watch M'dhara Vita. Fueled on by the bottom-of-the-barrel brandy and the museve music, his gymnastics added color to our gray Fridays.
It was no different on that last Friday.
[The owner's wife] had come to understand that it was the Congolese rumba, which demanded agile waists and rubber legs, that really got [M'dhara Vita] moving. So on that night, the Lumumbashi Stars blasted out of the stereo as [he] took center stage. He stood a while, as though to let the brandy and the music move its way though his ears and mouth to his brain and pelvis. Then he ground his hips in time to the rumba, his eyes closed all the while and his arms stretched out in front of him.
"I am Vitalis, shortcut Vita, ilizwo lami ngi Vitalis, danger basopo. Waya waya waya waya!" He got down to the ground, rolled and shook. We crowded around him, relishing this new dance that we had not seen before. He twitched to the right, and to the left. The music was loud as we egged him on. He convulsed in response to our cheering. His face shone, and he looked to us as if to say, "Clap harder."
And we did.
It was only when the song ended and we gave him a rousing ovation and still he did not get up that we realized that he would never get up, and that he had not been dancing but dying.
Excerpted from AN ELEGY FOR EASTERLY, published this month by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Petina Gappah. All rights reserved.