Mai Chi’s Music|
by Joel Lindstrom
& Catherine Heising
Photographs by Catherine Heising and Elaine Hickman
Mai Chi involves herself not only in the music but also in the community surrounding Zimbabwean music in the Northwest. Here in Eugene we’ve seen a lot of Mai Chi this past year. At last year’s MarimbaFest, Mai Chi: catered the meals, taught two classes, lead a group ritual, sang, danced, and drummed. Her singing, mbira, and marimba workshops here at the Kutsinhira Center have been well-attended. She spent months working with Kudana on vocals for their Spirit Song recording, and has performed with Kudana several times this summer, delighting audiences with her full, resonant voice and bright African costumes. Through all these endeavors Mai Chi builds a community here in the Northwest and connects our community with Zimbabwe.
Since becoming ill earlier this year with kidney failure, Mai Chi has become more inwardly focused, more graceful and dignified. We are grateful that she has shared her journey of healing with her friends in the Northwest Marimba Community. She has reached out to friends and found healing by giving and receiving music, performing with Kudana, or listening to “command” mbira serenades at the home of a friend. She was also a key member of the 1994 Zimbabwe Music Festival committee. I interviewed Mai Chi twice for this article, once in Eugene after my best attempt at a Zimbabwean dinner, and the other on a Sunday morning at Marian’s house in Portland, a map of Zimbabwe spread on the floor in front of us. Mai Chi shared part of the life she led in Zimbabwe before coming to the United States. Through stories of her childhood, I see the seeds that have blossomed into Mai Chi’s music, her teaching, her interest in community. I see glimpses of the people who helped her learn strength and humility.
Linda Nemarundwe was born on November 25, 1952 in the Ngundu area of southeastern Zimbabwe. (Mai Chi, the name she prefers, means mother of Chiwoniso, her eldest daughter.) Received by her grandmother, she was the second of seven children, preceded by Lora and followed by Ruth, Mickey, Alma, Marcel, and Appel. Her father Michael Nemarundwe ran one of the two stores in Ngundu at the junction of routes leading east to the low veldt, south to South Africa, and north to the city of Masvingo. The other store was owned by Europeans and sat across the road from their building, which housed a store and a cafe as well as Mai Chi’s family.
Though they lived on a major trade route it was “Bush,” Mai Chi recalls, “real bush,” with the nearest neighbor a mile away. She never lacked company, she says, because people were always coming by to trade their corn, groundnuts, or other crops for merchandise in her father’s store. Due to the long walk, visitors often spent the night on her family’s verandah. The only regret Mai Chi has of growing up in the back rooms of a brick store is that “we never had an opportunity to live a real traditional life except when we were visiting our relatives.”
Mai Chi’s childhood visits to her mother’s family were hard. Her parents’ was a “mixed” marriage. Her mother, Nyembezi, was raised a strict Seventh-Day Adventist in Chibi, to the north and west of Ngundu, and there were dietary restrictions to be heeded, lots of praying, and no cooking on Saturdays. “When you’re kids, little things like that are significant,” she says.
Her father, Michael, was raised in a traditional way in the village of Zimutu, north of Masvingo. His parents farmed and raised cattle, and his father was a medicine man — a dreamer, not a forecaster. As a boy Mai Chi’s father wanted more of an education than he could get in rural Zimbabwe, so in his early teens he left his parents’ house — without telling them — and walked all the way to South Africa. He didn’t return for fifteen years.
During his stay in South Africa, Michael converted to Methodism and also gained a liking for European ways. An entrepreneur at heart, his first job on returning to Zimbabwe—teaching at a missionary school—lasted only briefly. He soon arranged to buy bread and, using the bicycle he’d brought back with him, deliver it to the areas where Africans lived. One area he delivered to was Chibi.
At that time it was difficult, almost impossible, for an African in Zimbabwe to be self-employed. If they had jobs, Africans worked for Europeans. So Michael Nemarundwe with his bread-delivery business was looked upon as someone well-off. Lots of families wanted to match him up with their daughters. Nemarundwe was first matched with Mai Chi’s mother’s sister. But, on meeting, he preferred Nyembezi, and married her after waiting for her to finish school. Then they moved to Ngundu.
Michael Nemarundwe believed it was best for his children to be raised in a European manner. So when his daughters Lora and Linda were old enough, he sent them sixty miles away to Masvingo, where he thought the schools were better than the local ones. At first Lora and Linda lived with someone their father hired to care for them. Michael picked the girls up in his lorry (truck) every Friday afternoon and took them back on Sundays to start another week of school. When their paternal grandmother found out, and was so incensed by the thought of two young girls living alone in the city, she moved in with them and assumed their care.
Mai Chi remembers that living with her grandmother was wonderful. She remembers her grandmother’s traditional cooking fondly, but says, wryly, that she never really learned to like peanut butter, a standard base for Shona sauces. She’s grateful her grandmother told the kids what her father thought were not the “right things.” For one thing, her grandmother pronounced Mai Chi’s European name as Lindá which means “to look after” in Shona (as in looking after a baby). Mai Chi changed her name further. “I didn’t like using that name [Linda], simply because it didn’t really reflect anything of me. So I interpreted it to Shona and called myself Chengeto [which also means to look after or to take care of things].”
Though they lived in a brick house in the city, her grandmother raised the grandchildren traditionally. She told them stories of her childhood, Shona oral history. Mai Chi’s grandmother had grown up when the Zulu chief Tshaka’s son, Lobengula, came north from South Africa with his armies to raid the Shona. She remembered men from the village watching for the dust clouds raised by the armies and then blowing a wamanda (cow horn) in warning so people could gather a few things and hurry off to the caves to hide.
But being raised traditionally meant more than stories. Mai Chi gestures with her hands as she says,
“Raised traditionally is really when people understand about their ancestors. Many people don’t even talk about those things [ancestral history] in their families. Everything is church. Kids don’t see it being practiced. They’re not participating. So when things happen, they don’t know what to do. Like, for example, if I was home being sick like this, I would go to my aunt Mai Liza [her father’s sister who inherited her grandfather’s medicine bag], and they would pour some beer, talk to the ancestors. It’s not like they’re always going to get an answer . . . but it is to let them know. That way you are dealing with the problem together.”
A traditional upbringing includes teaching children the ways of hospitality. “How you give and take from elders. There are different ways of doing it. Like for example,” Mai Chi explains, pointing at the front door, “if an elder walked into this house, we would be the first to greet them rather than waiting for them to greet us. If they need a place to sit, we’d have to offer them a place to sit.” Here at Marian’s house Mai Chi was given the entire couch but made herself more comfortable seated on the floor, her back resting against it.
In African tradition, a young child would stand up to give an elder a place to sit. You do that automatically. That’s if you are raised in the traditional way. But if you’re not, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s very easy, when we go to people’s families, to say, ‘Oh, these people are raising their children the English way’ or ‘They’re raising their children in a traditional way.’
Mai Chi’s grandmother was a strong, traditional woman who protected her grandchildren. Mai Chi remembers, “one time we got punished by our schoolteacher because we were asked to write a composition using the word ‘cruel’, and I decided to say that our teacher was as cruel as Hitler.” She laughs. “He used to hit us with a ruler [on the knuckles]. It was painful, I tell you. And he was the only one in the whole school that was doing it.” Mai Chi crosses her legs in front of her, remembering that distant day.
Once he denied the whole class to go for lunch. So when my sister went home for lunch, my grandmother says, ‘Where’s Lindá?’ [When my sister told her] my grandmother said, ‘Teachers are not supposed to do that. Children are supposed to have their food anyway.’ So she packs a little sadza and vegetables with peanut butter, ties it in her little duku, [puts it] on her head and goes. We’re sitting [in the classroom]. Everyone’s kind of miserable and somebody says, ‘Linda, Linda, isn’t that your grandmother?’ At first I don’t know what to do. So one of the students says, ‘Well, open the window and take whatever she has.’ So I opened the window and she gives us the sadza and . . . oh, did we enjoy it. That was the best time I ever liked peanut butter.
After delivering the food, Mai Chi’s grandmother didn’t go away. She waited until the teacher came back and asked to speak to the headmaster. Mai Chi’s father heard about it later and took up the matter. “At least we stopped the knuckle-hitting. What was so funny was that he was a distant relative of my grandmother. Well, in a small place like that, everyone is related. So he had to listen.”
In 1964, the number of school-age children in her grandmother’s care having grown, Mai Chi’s parents moved to Masvingo. Her father had a building built — the first in the area with display windows — to house his store and new photography studio. Unfortunately, 1964 was a time of political unrest in Zimbabwe. The following year, Ian Smith’s white minority government would issue its unilateral declaration of independence from British colonial authority. Controls were being tightened on Africans. Loans weren’t available for African-owned businesses. The banned political parties Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and its more radical offshoot Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) both asked for monetary support from the people. Michael Nemarundwe’s business survived but didn’t flourish.
Mai Chi did well in school and enjoyed going. Though not the “number one” student, she got good grades, and, because of her involvement in the school, was called an “all-’rounder”: she sang in the school choir, played netball (a version of basketball), and ran track for her school. Her favorite events were the sprints and the long jump, but not the high jump, she remembers, drawing her knees up to her chest and laughing.
Most of us know Mai Chi through the music she helped bring from Zimbabwe to the United States. Many of us have taken Shona singing classes from her. But Mai Chi’s first exposure to African music was not in a class.
As you grow up, every African child, whether in the city or the rural area, is exposed to African music. We grow up singing. Your grandmother or your aunts or whoever is taking care of you as a baby, that’s what they sing. So you’re exposed to traditional African music. And through stories, because that’s how we learn most of our songs actually, through being told folk stories.
In addition to the stories and songs from her grandmother, Mai Chi’s uncle Ndava (her father’s brother) also influenced her musical interests. Ndava was a traditional ngoma player (a drummer). Ndava was well known in Masvingo. He played in the mbakumba style — the style of the song “Mhondoro” (lion spirit) which Mai Chi taught at the 1993 MarimbaFest. To attend his nightly performances at a local beer hall, she would sneak off; Mai Chi enjoyed hearing Ndava play and sing, but knew her father wouldn’t approve.
Though at school she was exposed to church music, another musical influence from her childhood was rock-and-roll. Mai Chi listened to the popular stars of the day, and, in her early teens, when home from boarding school for the holidays, she got together with some friends (whose parents owned a hotel and needed a band to perform for guests) and played as a rock band. Mai Chi came over for practices to listen and sometimes to sing with them. Though she never performed in public with her friends for fear her father would be angry, this experience initiated her interest in electric music, from which her band Kubatana arose.
In addition to music, politics, too, occupied Mai Chi’s childhood. As in many families, her parents were members of the more conservative party ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo, and the children were members of ZANU or its military wing ZANLA, led by Robert Mugabe. At that time, ZAPU members believed in a strategy of negotiation, while ZANU members thought freedom would come only through armed struggle. Mai Chi regularly attended ZANLA meetings, discussing politics as well as ways of convincing ZAPU members of the need for fighting.
By the mid 1960s, the political turmoil died out for a while. Mai Chi stopped going to meetings, but began accompanying her mother on trips that combined politics with music. Throughout the colonial period in Africa, governments, colonists, and missionaries suppressed traditional music. For governments, it was expedient to prevent gatherings and forms of expression that could lead to uprisings. For colonists, African music was difficult to understand, something to be replaced by familiar European songs and instruments. For missionaries, the music (especially drumming) was pagan and had to be eliminated in favor of Western Christian hymns. (Mai Chi can still sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” as she demonstrated over dinner at our house.) By the mid-60s, though, there was a movement among Africans to introduce traditional music and instruments into the church. Specifically in Zimbabwe there was a booklet of African hymns called Nziyo Dzevu, written by four people, among them, Abraham Dumisani Maraire (Dumi).
Because times were hard in her father’s business, Mai Chi’s mother took a job traveling to outlying areas to teach nutrition and home economics to rural women. At the meetings Nyembezi would lead songs from Nziyo Dzevu. Mai Chi enjoyed accompanying her mother on these trips partly because of the singing, which she sometimes joined, but especially because of the drums the local men played to accompany the singing. Though she didn’t join the drumming — women weren’t allowed to drum — she loved to listen.
As a legacy of British colonial rule, most Zimbabwean children who continue their schooling through high school leave home for boarding school. In 1970 Mai Chi left home to attend Luveve Secondary School, just outside of Bulawayo, 150 miles east of Masvingo. There she played netball, sang in the choir, and joined the Student Christian Movement (SCM). Though its name indicates otherwise, the SCM was a political organization, the word “Christian” added and Bible readings conducted at meetings to deflect government suspicion. The students spent most of their meetings discussing current events, problems with the government, and the beginnings of the war for independence. Mai Chi taught her friends in the SCM songs from Nziyo Dzevu.
In Mai Chi’s second year at Luveve, the political situation began to heat up. Since Ian Smith’s government had declared itself independent from Britain in 1965 — illegally according to the British and most of the rest of the world — there were many efforts to negotiate an internationally acceptable settlement. In November of 1971 one such agreement was signed, which, though falling short of Zimbabwean nationalists’ demands for power-sharing, did provide that the basis for settlement be acceptable to “the people of Rhodesia as a whole.” A commission headed by Lord Pearce would decide if the settlement was indeed acceptable to all the people.
In spite of heavy governmental pressure and propaganda to the contrary, the Zimbabwean people said “No” to the Lord Pearce commission. At the time, Mai Chi was an officer in the SCM. One afternoon she received a mysterious visitor from the University of Zimbabwe at the fence that surrounded the girls’ dormitory. He told her to prepare a protest against the Lord Pearce commission by arranging for a group from her school to attend a rally in Bulawayo. She would have less than a week to set it up. Mai Chi was surprised that anyone knew to ask her, but, within a few days, had organized enough students for the protest.
The students had to sneak out of their dorms at night to walk the twelve or fifteen miles to Bulawayo. The head girl at Mai Chi’s dorm refused to participate and, further, refused to unlock the gate to the fence. Mai Chi had to get the key herself and, early in the morning, let out the girls who were going. They walked through the dark, joined by boys from the other dormitory. Arriving at Bulawayo at dawn, they were stopped by the police.
The students were detained and interrogated. Mai Chi was suspended for two weeks and then, when she came back, was not allowed to board at the school. With home so far away, for most students this would have been the end of their schooling. But her cousin Joseph Vende, a teacher at Luveve, boarded her — not even telling Mai Chi’s father — until the following term when she was again allowed in the dormitories.
The next year, 1972, Mai Chi’s third year at Luveve, was an exciting and life-changing one. A Zimbabwean organization, Ecumenical Ministries, was the sponsor of an annual week of teacher-training workshops to promote the teaching of African culture. Teachers from Zimbabwe and neighboring countries attended. In 1972 the workshops were broadened to include secondary students. Four scholarships were offered, one each in writing, music, drama, and art. Mai Chi applied and, from students throughout Zimbabwe, was selected for a scholarship to attend the 1972 workshops in Harare as the music student.
After furthering her studies of Nziyo Dzevu at the Ecumenical Ministries workshops, Mai Chi was asked to attend the SCM conference, held the following school holiday, to teach what she had learned. At the conference, held at Saint Augustine’s, just north of Mutare, she taught some of the songs she had learned. As she was teaching, one of the conference leaders came in with a stranger and, after listening for a while, introduced the stranger as an important guest, the man who wrote the song Mai Chi was teaching. The stranger was Dumisani Maraire.
Mai Chi’s reaction was to keep teaching. “I had so much confidence in myself that I didn’t even think I was teaching anything wrong of his song. It didn’t even cross my mind.” Dumi was surprised to see a young woman teaching his song. Mai Chi was just twenty; he, ten years her senior. He offered to teach her more, and they worked together for the rest of the conference, playing together at a final performance. Before she left to return to school, Dumi asked her to marry him. Mai Chi refused.
Mai Chi returned to Luveve, and Dumi to the United States, where he was studying and teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle. Over the whole next year he called often and they spent hours talking on the phone and exchanging letters. Finally, she agreed to marry. Among the Karanga — the Shona speaking ethnic group Mai Chi belongs to — negotiations leading to a marriage are intricate and fraught with points of possible contention. When a woman has met a man she’d like to marry she tells her aunt, who then quietly finds out about the man. If the aunt thinks the man is all right, she tells her family and they prepare for a visit from a committee of the suitor’s family.
At this time, Dumi was living in the Seattle area, but Mai Chi’s aunt reached approval anyway. So a committee from Dumi’s family came from Mutare — his home town — to Masvingo to talk to the Nemarundwes. The visiting committee doesn’t talk directly to the bride-to-be’s family at first, rather they use a go-between, a munyai, who knows the woman’s family and can, as Mai Chi puts it, “manipulate them.” Tobias — one of Michael Nemarundwe’s cousin’s sons — was chosen as the munyai, but was unable to talk to Mr. Nemarundwe as Nemarundwe left town as soon as he heard that Dumi’s committee had arrived without Dumi. Mai Chi’s father was angry because Dumi was still living in the U.S. and because he felt his daughter wasn’t ready to marry. Arriving in town on Sunday night, knowing the visitors had a long drive ahead of them he said, “They can leave $10 just to say they were here. And if they’re not back in a year with Dumisani Maraire, the whole thing is null.”
Dumi returned to Zimbabwe within the year and came with his committee to Masvingo. Negotiations between the families went well and a rovora (a bride price) of thirteen cows — an especially large number — was agreed to, along with a usual one cow ngombe yomai — literally “thank the mother” - a gift of gratitude to the mother of the bride. Mai Chi’s father, much to Dumi’s dismay, insisted on receiving the rovora in actual cows, not just the equivalent in cash, as is commonly done. The two were married, and six months later Mai Chi moved to Olympia, Washington.
Mai Chi has accomplished a lot since she first left Zimbabwe twenty years ago: birthed and raised five children, learned to drum, and helped nurture a community that’s grown around Zimbabwean music. We’re grateful to her for all she’s given us, the songs she’s shared, the performances she’s involved us in, and the willingness with which she shares her culture. We wish her the best in her healing and look forward to seeing her again on stage, with a Shona ululation and just a hint of a smile.
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