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“The VaNyemba Sequence” by Tsitsi Jaji

“The VaNyemba Sequence” by Tsitsi Jaji


The VaNyemba Sequence

Ex nihilo, omnia.

of beans

Plorans ploravit in nocte.

I missed Sekuru’s funeral. Only the stranger who was my aunt
was left to condole. Baba repeated my flight number across the oceanic

hiss of telephone static, twenty years thick. Sekuru had got them talking again
by dying. When I arrived, she said I was her twin.

I wondered why she had not missed me. But I was glad she knew
how to get to our musha.

How do I bury the shame of not knowing which tree to turn after
for the road – such as it is – to their land?

We rode in uncle’s pick-up truck to the farm. I whined
in the backseat about his open beer bottle. I was scared.

I was scared of going kumusha without Sekuru.
Scared I would not have the words for his grave.

Scared to walk his fields.
Scared I would forget which cows he gave me.

Scared, now he is gone, no one would gather in the thatched kitchen
to kneel, clap for protection and take snuff with the ancestors.

I am right.
Kneeling at his graveside, I have no words to bring him back.

Virgines eius squalidæ, et ipsa oppressa amaritudine.

Tete sits me down and tells me the story of our ankestors.
She says it with a hard K. I listen, squelching my sass.

Our ankestors were hunters, of the zebra totem. There were two brothers and a sister. She was very beautiful, and as sweet as a sugar bean, so they called her VaNyemba. They came all the way from Mozambique to this place, looking for wild game. When the chief saw VaNyemba’s beauty, he granted her brothers leave to hunt on his land. They set out to hunt, leaving VaNyemba to tend the fire. She was very beautiful. The chief surprised her when her brothers had gone. She screamed, but her brothers were far, far. He was a heavy man, and brutal. And as he thrust himself inside her he found her penis. Our VaNyemba hanged her busted bare body. When the chief saw it, he was afraid. He stripped off his regalia and fled, leaving the land to her brothers. That is the land they buried her in. And that is how we came to live in Chihota, the land of sweet potatoes.

I am sitting next to Tete, wondering if
I will ever eat a sweet potato again.

Alia autem ceciderunt in petrosa, ubi non habebant terram multam.


this land
is your land.

this land
was given
for my

mangled body.

this land
was handed
over to you.

kings and kingdoms
passed away

this is my body.
this land was
my dead body.

tend it.
tend it.

–till this land–
your land.

Benedictus fructus ventris tui.



black eye.

red. red

yellow lentil.



bean, honey.


Esurivi enim, et dedistis mihi manducare.

Come, let us eat.

Come, let us pray:

Our Mother, VaNyemba, we bless you.
Maita basa, VaNyemba, Amai vedu.

Mother, we sing your name in the fields and in the mountains.
Amai, tinoimba zita renyu kwaminda ne kwamakomo.

You died for your land, but you were victorious. Praise be, mother, high praises.
Imi mafirenyika yenyu, asi makunda. Mazvita, mama, Mazvita zvikuru.

Give us this day plenty of sweet potatoes.
Tiipeiwo mangwanani ano mahota akwandisa.

O, how we rejoice to eat your sweet potatoes.
Hiyi, tinofadzisa kudya mbambaira yenyu.

And how we love to eat your sugar beans.
Tinofarira kudya manyemba yakabikiswa naimimi.

For we are your children from Chihota;
Tisu, tiri vana venyu tinobva kweChihota;

Yes, we come from the Land of Sweet Potatoes.
Hongu, kumusha kwedu kuri kwaChihota.

Praise be, Sweet Sugar Bean
Mazvita, VaNyemba.

  • “As a Zimbabwean who has lived abroad for twenty years, my ability to express myself in ChiZezuru has faltered. This poem is an exercise in recovery but also exposure, as I include my halting and perhaps inaccurate translations to track the struggle towards language.”


Tsitsi Jaji is a Zimbabwean American, and grew up in Harare before moving to the U.S. for college. Her first poetry chapbook, Carnaval is included in the collection Seven New Generation African Poets and she was awarded an honorable mention in 2015 for the Ron Sillerman Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Madison Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Bitter Oleander, Illuminations, ElevenEleven, Poetry International’s Zimbabwe page, and the Center for Book Arts Broadside Poetry Series. She is also the author of a scholarly book, Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism and pan-African Solidarity (Oxford UP, 2014). She teaches at Duke University.

  • Languages – English, Latin, ChizeZuru
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