The Sand Ship Builders of Chitungwiza

In  by October 20, 2023

The sound of the men and women working outside snatched him from that surreal world between a dream and reality. Muchenjeri could not sit up unaided; the last time he had been able to do that, he reflected, everything else in his world worked too. Ten years ago.

He had been on a visit to Zimbabwe, the land of his birth, when the government finally responded to the Covid-19 outbreak and announced a lockdown and travel ban. By the time it was lifted, race riots broke out all over the United Kingdom in response to an incident of police brutality in the United States. Then came the terror attacks and total war in the Middle East and Afghanistan as the United States withdrew its troops. North Korea collapsed. China collapsed. The United States collapsed, divided among its traditional conservative and progressive factions, and a small but belligerent white nationalist entity.

Zimbabwe was already on the brink before any of this started. Muchenjeri recalled that he could still use his legs when the telecommunications system went. It was the week that the electricity went for good that he had the car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

The aroma of baobab porridge wafted into his musings as a shadow fell over the cave. Chiga came in, and knelt before him, placing the bowl on the floor. She planted a kiss on his forehead. “Good morning, my love.”

As she helped him sit up, she said, “One of the scouts reports that Marauders are headed this way. I thought they had all gone north. I thought that is why we have been safe here!”

“Your brother thought all the Marauders had gone north,” said Muchenjeri. “But I knew that it was only a matter of time before our activities attracted attention.”

“Six people have been expelled from here,” said Chiga, thoughtfully. “So many people with a grudge.” She sat beside him, leaning against the wall of the cave, and began to feed him. Later, she would inspect her desert reclamation project along what used to be the Manyame River.

A shadow fell across the cave again, and Munaku burst in, crouching before his mother and stepfather. “Baba, the chief requests your presence at an extraordinary session of the Council!”

“As my lord wishes,” said Muchenjeri.

The teenager nodded respectfully and departed. Muchenjeri loved the boy dearly. He was everything a man could hope for in a son. He had shown an aptitude and initiative for Muchenjeri’s mission to preserve technology and knowledge for the survival of the people. Munaku had organized an expedition to the schools of the abandoned city of Chitungwiza and collected calculators. Their scavenged solar panels now powered some of the lights in the caves. 

About three-quarters of an hour later, Chiga wheeled her husband to the Chief’s Courtyard. They traversed a bleak landscape of brown, cracked earth, punctuated by the odd resilient tree to the old school buildings that Chief Seke Mutema III had claimed as his government seat. The hot, dry air seared Muchenjeri’s throat. He reached for the plastic tubing that linked with the plastic bottle strapped to the back of his wheelchair and sipped gratefully. Water seeped through the granite of the caves and collected in pools. 

Behind this cluster of buildings, nearly on the horizon, the abandoned city of Chitungwiza rose against the blue sky. As the couple circumnavigated the buildings, the shacks that housed most of the five hundred residents of this settlement sailed into view. As did the sand ships.

It had been a full week since Muchenjeri had left the caves among the dwalas where the Technocrats, all ten of them, lived. The progress made on the three main sand ships staggered him. They were lined up on what would have been the sports ground. Salvaged from long-distance haulage trucks and buses, with masts made from streetlamps, they resembled giant works of metal sculpture. Each of them could accommodate about a hundred people. There were fifteen smaller vehicles, prototypes, to meet the shortfall, but there were enough to move the entire Chiefdom of Seke Mutema III.

The wind blew, lifting a wave of dust that floated like a ghost across the waste before dissipating. A sizable crowd had already gathered in the school courtyard. This is where assembly would have been held. Muchenjeri’s mind wandered to the time he stood in such a courtyard, a gangly, clean-shaven lad in a uniform several sizes too big, one his parents expected him to grow into. The time before the global catastrophe. The time before the national catastrophe that had sent millions into exile. The time when the people knew not calamity and despondency, but the exuberance of postcolonial optimism. When the land was green and the rain came in due season.

A hushed tone descended on the crowd, as Muchenjeri and Chiga, each a distinguished technical expert and member of the council, proceeded to the steps, an improvised dais where sat with almost theatrical aplomb Chief Seke Mutema III and his officials and wives. Like Muchenjeri, the former Brian Manyame had been visiting Zimbabwe from a foreign base when Covid-19 broke out. After nearly a million people had abandoned the city of Chitungwiza, he had led this group to the wastelands on the periphery. Six years later, they had managed to not only survive the harsh climate and the collapse of civilization, but had begun to thrive.

It was this progression from merely trying to stay alive, reverting to skills and a social order that had not been needed for over a century and a half, to beginning to find purpose and beauty in life that allowed a new centre of power to begin to rise in the community to challenge that of the chief. Muchenjeri and Chiga, the chief’s sister, had worked assiduously to archive knowledge on recovered external hard drives. They had organized studies to understand the radically transformed ecology and meteorology, and to inventory surviving flora and fauna that could be cultivated to sustain life. They had maintained a school and encouraged youth creativity and initiative. It was becoming increasingly apparent that their vision offered a more secure and sustainable future than the regimental tribal regime of Chief Seke Mutema III, which could be regarded as merely a more refined form of the Marauder bands.

As Munaku placed his stepfather’s wheelchair near the chief and kicked the brake down with his heel, that the two men embodied two radically different approaches to human survival could not be more salient. Chief Seke Mutema III, even in his fifties, possessed rippling muscles, a barrel chest and washboard stomach. He had trained in the U.S. Army and seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was his knowledge and capabilities that had seen the chiefdom through Marauder attacks and famine.

In sharp contrast, Muchenjeri had a body that statistically should have never survived at all. Yet, it housed a mind that had guided the chiefdom towards increasing mastery over its ravaged environment.

“My people!” Chief Seke Mutema III began, scanning the sea of faces. “I have seen fit that we cut through the formalities. Most of you know by now that Marauders have been seen in the west, headed this way. It is estimated that they will be here in two days. It seems that our great scientist and educator, Muchenjeri, has saved the day for us! Had he not instructed us to build these sand ships, we would not have the means to escape. But they are ready, just in time for when we need them.”

The crowd rose in a murmur.

“Your lord is still speaking!” Simbarashe, Chiga and the chief’s nephew, the effective protocol officer said.

“Muchenjeri, wise man, my brother-in-law, you are the Joseph to my Pharaoh!” Chief Seke Mutema turned to face Muchenjeri as a round of applause and ululation rose from the crowd.

“My lord is generous with his praise,” said Muchenjeri, when the applause had died down. “What we have achieved here is the fruits of your astute leadership.” He paused, noting how the granite features of his brother-in-law’s face relaxed almost imperceptibly, and a glow came to his eyes. “However, having been given the floor, I must ask my lord to reconsider the decision to flee.”

A gasp rose from the crowd. They knew when to participate in democracy, and when to be spectators. The objective of today’s session was not to establish a consensus. It was for the two factions to finally have it out.

“If we flee, where do we go?” said Muchenjeri, addressing the crowd.

“North, where many people and wildlife have migrated to!” someone said. “Where there may still be abundant free-flowing water.”

“If there are more people, might they not pose a bigger threat than the Marauders that we might be running away from?” Muchenjeri asked.

“Our sand ships will give us a tactical advantage,” said Chief Seke Mutema III.

“I designed them to be vessels for trade!” said Muchenjeri. “For the planting of seeds and saplings over a wider area.”

“Obviously, they can be useful in other ways,” said Rinocheka, the head of security. He too had fought in international wars. “Let’s not waste time; who wants to follow the chief in search of new lands to conquer and alliances we can negotiate from a position of power, or wait here passively for the law of the jungle to take them?”

Muchenjeri counted fourteen people with their hands down. He met the bewildered look on Munaku’s face with an empathic nod.

“My brother-in-law,” said Chief Seke Mutema III, “It looks like you will remain behind with your little intelligentsia clique. No hard feelings, everyone has the right to choose their own path for survival.” He rose. “We will leave at first light tomorrow, but I will send a scout team ahead this afternoon.”

“Wait!” cried Mugove, the treasurer. “What property shall we leave them, my chief?”

Five hundred pairs of eyes riveted towards Muchenjeri. It gratified him to note that he was at least allowed to negotiate on this. 

“Their precious books and computers,” said Chief Seke Mutema III. “Food to last them till the next harvest. Good luck keeping that away from the Marauders.”

“And our seeds, please?” Chiga spoke for the first time. “And one sand ship …”

“No sand ship!” said the chief. “We cannot leave a working one here. If the Marauders find it, it will not be long before they can imitate the technology. We mean to get a head start in our migration.”

“We agree!” said Muchenjeri.

• • •

The Technocrats stood on the highest dwala, under a tent, and watched the migration of Chief Seke Mutema III. There was something purposeful and adventurous in the way the sails unfurled in the fiery morning wind. Then, to whoops of delight, the giant misshapen metal beetles seemed to come to life, like specimens reorienting themselves after their collector had grown bored with and released them back into the garden.

Slowly, the sand ships cleared the school sports field, gaining momentum when they reached a dip in the ground. It was nearly an hour before they were just a speck on the shimmering horizon.

“We must begin our own preparations!” said Muchenjeri.

The Technocrats gathered around him eagerly. They had not dared initiate a discussion about the future while the larger faction was still here. They had trusted their natural leader.

“If we set out this afternoon, we can be in Chitungwiza. We can find materials with which to build new sand ships. I mean for us to go round from Chitungwiza. That way, we will avoid the Marauders as they pursue the chief and his group.”

“You are confident that they will follow?” asked Hove.

“Of course, they will,” said Handina, his wife. “Once they come here, they will see that this is a recently vacated but large settlement. The potential booty is impossible to dismiss as unobtainable. Which is why I am pleased that Muchenjeri doesn’t want us to be around when the Marauders come.”

“Well, let’s get moving, then!” said Muchenjeri.

Munaku and five other young men stepped forward to move his stepfather onto a litter, which would be let down the dwala by ropes.

“Baba, you are so sure we can still survive here?” said Munaku, glancing around at the bleak landscape. “How? Why? The chief and his followers took everything.”

“They took everything we made, son,” said Muchenjeri. “But they did not take away the intellect, the work ethics, the human capital that made that everything. They left us with that, and we can utilize it to carry on taming our environment. That sand ship technology can be applied to other things, like irrigation, as you have all seen in our latest projects.”

“But if we build again, what will stop Chief Seke Mutema III or any of the Marauders from coming back to seize by force anything they can get their hands on?” another youth— Muchenjeri could not recall her name—asked.

He smiled. “My daughter, are you confident that my brother-in-law will have those ships for long? Factor in the many variables; no one among them knows how to build a sand ship from scratch, let alone repair one. They moved away from a source of raw materials. Battles with other groups might decimate the few technically minded members of their group, whereas we will continue to avoid war because we haven’t got the means to fight one.”

“I see what you mean, Baba!” said Munaku, with alacrity. “Our little group represents not only the accumulation of human knowledge but also its survival to the next generation.”

Muchenjeri beamed at him. He would make a great leader one day. In addition to his education and training, Munaku had his uncle’s physique. He would make a formidable warrior should the need arise.

The sun glared fiercely on them as it had done for so many years. But they would survive it. Muchenjeri did not feel the ground when his feet touched it. He sank into his wheelchair, and stared out to the horizon.

Copyright © 2022 Masimba Musodza. Originally published in the anthology Save The World: Twenty Sci-Fi Writers Save The Planet, ed. J.Scott Coatsworth, Other Worlds Ink, United States, 2022. Reprinted with permission of the author

Feature image credit:

Depositphotos

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Masimba Musodza

Masimba Musodza was born in Zimbabwe, but has lived most of his adult life in the UK, settling in the North East England town of Middlesbrough. His short fiction, mostly on the speculative fiction spectrum, has appeared in anthologies and periodicals around the world and online. He has published two novels and a novella in ChiShona, his first language, and a collection of short stories in English.
Internet Speculative Fiction Database author record #230825

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