“The Gold Miners’ Cabin” by Nancy Fry

“Out, out, just because we let you live here till now doesn’t mean you can carry on squatting.”

One of the white men with guns was shouting in Shona. From behind the swollen trunk of a moringa tree beyond the river I watched. The baas on a white horse threw back his head and bellowed at his black lackeys, who bellowed at the villagers. Women screamed and grabbed children, and the lackeys lashed out with sticks and drove them onto vehicles. With sticks and rifle butts they whacked people trying to gather clothes and blankets, and packed them onto vehicles which sped away in a cloud of pink dust. The chief was squashed against the side and thrown about, his leopard skin dishevelled. How could they be so disrespectful? The lackeys pounced on chickens scratching in the earth, wrung their necks and strung them together, then threw lit matches into the thatch of each hut. My knees wobbled at the roaring flames. The baas cantered off and the lackeys hung strings of chickens round their necks, herded the goats and shiny black Mashona cattle together and followed. The new leaves of the msasa trees blazed red and yellow and the forest trembled. I was ten years old.

Next day the baas snatched my brothers because Baba could not pay their tax.

“Your sons,” said Amai, “they’re taking your sons. Do something.”

He pulled himself to his full height. “I will not plead like a child. They steal my sons, they steal everything, but they cannot steal my dignity.”

I cowered behind my mother.

“And you,” he said.

“No,” said Amai, “too young,” and clutched me to her skirts, in vain.

For the next twenty years, working on the white man’s farms or in the white man’s mines, my heart ached to see my father again.


I trudged along the path to my hut, away from the gold stamp mill with the clatter of belts and the pounding of heavy metal stamps crushing the ore, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk. After twelve hours’ work in the pit with only a one-hour break, I was exhausted and my back ached and creaked. Jackals howled. The hut was dim with a sooty roof and maize cobs hung on the wall to dry.

“Your dinner’s burnt,” my wife screeched. “Where have you been?”

“The bossboy wanted to talk to me.”

“Chii! Your breath stinks of beer,” she hissed.

I lowered my eyes. She spat in the fire and boiling droplets leapt out.

“How will we ever escape this place if you drink away the money?” she sneered. “Bossboy, bossboy. Licking his boots. Wait till I see him, giving you a whole pot of beer, I’ll bet.”

I shuffled over to the fire, sat with the pan, squelched sadza between my fingers, and wolfed it down. If it was burnt, I didn’t notice. Let her ramble on with her squawking. I stared at the flames.

“We’ll never get away,” she screamed shrilly like a cicada. “You’ll be stuck in this dump and your children will be trapped their whole lives in this mine.”

“Be quiet, you’ll wake them. Mr Frobisher pays a handsome wage,” I said, but I knew it was not.

She shook a fist and tossed her head.

“Chii! Handsome wage, handsome wage. Mr Benevolence Almighty lounges round in his big white house, takes the fruit of the land he stole from our forefathers and fetches clean water, while we drink from the poison river and our children fall ill. The river he’s poisoned. Pah! Look at Mufaro’s sister! A halfwit for life. The mosquito sucking blood is more honest than the white people drinking red wine. I can’t stomach this.”

“Neither can I.”

I ate up, grabbed the mbira that my friend’s father had made for me from strips of metal and half a calabash, and staggered out.

“That’s right,” she shrieked, “walk away, go and get drunk with your friends, drink away your children’s future, that’ll solve everything.”

I wandered down the path. She was still shouting. Smoke drifted from the roofs and the night glowed with fireflies. A white moon shone on older children playing, and singing came from some of the huts.

Mufaro with the laughing eyes sat with his family round the fire. He was not married and had built his own hut next door but returned home for breakfast and supper every day. In a corner his grandfather sat on a chair and inhaled fine red powder from a horn. I sat down and we passed a pipe round the circle. My wife’s screeching faded and a cloud of peace settled over me. Mufaro and I had both started work for the baas at ten years old, and his uncle was the hunting assistant for the baas. How we rocked with laughter at the white people back then.

“Chii! When the baas kills an animal, he doesn’t take it home to eat, he leaves it to rot. He gets me to photograph him sitting on top or resting an elbow on the animal.”

We doubled up and beat our thighs with fists. I leant an elbow on Mufaro and flung the other arm in the air.

“Take a picture,” I said.

We rolled about laughing once more. But that was then.

He gave his younger sister, born simple after they dumped cyanide and mercury in the river, a fond tweak on the arm. Sleep came over me and I regretted the curse between my wife and me. I knew she was right. I needed a kick, but I resented it. One day I would act. I would do better than quit drinking. I didn’t know what. It would be something big, but one man cannot surround an anthill.

Mufaro’s father smiled at me through a haze of smoke.

“The future belongs to you and Mufaro,” he said. “One day we will take back our land. One day you will be richer than Mr Frobisher.”

My chest swelled with pride. And one day I would see Baba again. From my waistband I unhooked my mbira, put a ring plectrum on one thumb, and played my favourite song. Heads nodded at the jingling sounds. I thought of the girl I’d wanted to marry in the old baas’s farm compound. I thought of my parents and grandparents and my brothers who marched me into the forest and beat me to a pulp. The older one stripped off my animal hide, knifed a tortoise, then soaked the hide in blood.

“We’ll show Baba next time we go home,” he had said.

They left me for dead, and I fled and didn’t see Mufaro again till we became miners.


At the time of the death of the moon, men waited in groups at the edge and stared into the yellow-bottomed pit. It gaped like a yawning crocodile and was twice as deep as Mr Frobisher’s two-storey house, which stood on the opposite side to the compound. We huddled under cloaks against the chill. At first light we moved off like a touched spider’s nest, down the ladders into the crater with the stamps that clanked and knocked all day and all night, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk. Dump trucks sped up and down the road and rattled as they went. The sun rose in a yellow haze of dust and smoke. Our hair was full of yellow dust, and the soles of our feet were dry and cracked. Sweat poured off our backs, but there was no stopping or the bossboy would beat us, and if anyone needed to go into the bush, they had to use a corner of the pit. The bossboys were the white man’s whip and strutted round in swanky shirts and shoes. They were worse than the white supervisors, brandishing sticks with which they struck us freely.

I stepped under the boom of the excavator.

“I’m leaving when the rains come,” I said to Mufaro, shouting to be heard above the stamps.

“The white people get ten times our wage. Three tons of ore we dig up, just so one white person can have one ring!”

“But where will you go? You’ve walked all over the city, you’ve begged in the locations, you’ve worked in every mine there is. Join the army?”

He cackled, and I snorted.

“I’d rather die. I’ll join the freedom fighters.”

“Let’s go together.”

“I want to see my father again.”

“Next week we’ll go, after we get our money.”

Our bossboy strode across and whacked me on the shoulder.

“Work, don’t chat.”

I flinched, a long weal swelled up and blood came to the surface. The bossboy moved off.

“Under the old bossboy we got five minutes’ rest every hour,” Mufaro muttered.

I swung the pickaxe while Mufaro shovelled broken rock onto the wheelbarrow. My shoulder was stinging.

Suddenly shouts and the sound of cracking came from the sky. We looked up. A cloud of rocks was hurtling towards us. I dived out of the way, but when I turned round, unhurt, Mufaro lay on his side, one arm flung out backwards. His head was crushed and half his face was gone. Blood seeped into the rocky yellow ground. A knee poked through a hole in his trousers and the toes of one foot were splayed and bloody. Like most of us, he had sold the boots issued to him. Not that they would have saved him. A mixture of grief and anger overcame me. Ten years earlier I would have resigned myself to yet another injustice. Now, at the sight of Mufaro’s head smashed beyond recognition, bone and brains sticking out and the pool of blood spreading, I collapsed and butted my head on the hard ground. A crowd flocked round.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Mufaro.”

The news went through the crowd, Mufaro-faro-faro.

“What happened?”

“Rock fall.”

Rock-fall rock-fall rock-fall.

“This is why I’m getting out of this place.”

“My son will never work here.”

I swayed on my knees, crying. Fallen rocks were strewn round, and the one that had shattered Mufaro’s head lay further off, its jagged edge smeared with blood and brains.

“Ho, they’ll get away with it as usual.”

“Same every time.”

“Last time he got fined.”

“He makes millions out of us.”

A white supervisor appeared and the crowd parted. The stamp mills clanked and pounded on. More mineworkers clamoured round and voices babbled, Who is it?-is it?-is it? Mufaro-faro-faro. More white supervisors came and the crowd let them through untouched.

Faces appeared at the rim of the pit, men shouted, and a vehicle zigzagged down. It was the manager. They gave him a wider passage. He took one look, heaved a sigh, and scuttled back.

“Who’ll tell his family?”

“They’ll be devastated.”

“All they’ve got left is his sister.”

“The retarded one.”

Another vehicle wound its way down, and two men laid the body on a litter and wrapped it in a blanket. A murmur went through the crowd as the vehicle snaked back up.

“Everybody back to work,” yelled one of the white supervisors.

We dispersed, dragging our feet, and the gold stamp mills pounded on, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk, never stopping.


The msasas blazed red and yellow. Soon the rainbird would be back with its call like water bubbling from a spring, ponds and lakes would appear, and the pink dust would turn to mud. My comrades and I walked along the old familiar paths, AK-47s over our shoulders, till night fell and the hills were black against the sky. By the gleam of a half-moon we climbed, our footsteps muffled by long grass. On one side a herd of wildebeest shuffled across the plain, but on the other, down in the valley, were the twinkling lights of a large farmhouse with whitewashed walls, and in my head I saw hungry flames engulfing a village and people running and screaming and the chief with dishevelled leopard skin squashed against the side of the open vehicle. The house lay silent.

Judy Birkbeck

About Judy Birkbeck

Judy Birkbeck has short stories in Unthology, Aesthetica, Mechanics' Institute Review, The Shadow Booth, Lighthouse and others. A novel, Behind the Mask is Nothing, is published by Holland House Books.

Judy Birkbeck has short stories in Unthology, Aesthetica, Mechanics' Institute Review, The Shadow Booth, Lighthouse and others. A novel, Behind the Mask is Nothing, is published by Holland House Books.

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