It is with very deep sadness that I write this post informing you of the recent death of Tariro’s librarian and program officer, Senzeni Matikiti. In addition to working with Tariro, Senzeni was a close personal friend, whom I have known since my first trip to Zimbabwe, in 1995. My feelings after losing Senzeni are too big to fit in a single post. Today, I want to give you a glimpse into Senzeni’s life and work. I will follow this with another post early next week honoring Senzeni’s experience, and reflecting on how her life speaks to a much larger, Zimbabwean story.
1995: Meeting Senzeni
Originally from Mukodzongi village in Chiweshe, Senzeni came to Harare as a teenager, where she lived with one of her female relatives, whose name was Kesi Chauruka. In a typical trade for adolescent girls, Senzeni helped the Chauruka family with various household tasks, cooking and leaning in exchange for her food and lodging. When I first met Senzeni in 1995, we were both fifteen years old.
Obviously, there were major differences between us. While Senzeni was no longer attending school, I attended a prestigious public IB program in Eugene, Oregon. While Senzeni had little access to any kind of financial resources, I had the ability to travel halfway around the world in order to study Zimbabwean music. Nevertheless, we developed the kind of friendship that often results from extended, daily interactions. Frequently, we walked to Machipisa market together to do the daily shopping for the Chauruka family. We also sat for long hours around the family’s cooking fire in the evenings, stumbling to converse in each other’s languages. By the left I left, we had developed a close friendship, which would last for nearly twenty years.
1997: Returning to Zimbabwe
When I returned to Zimbabwe in 1997, Senzeni was no longer living with the Chauruka family. Near the end of my stay in 1995, one of the residents of the Chauruka household, a woman named Mai Ndasara, had passed away of an undefined illness. Shortly after this, her widowed husband, Baba Ndasara, took Senzeni as his new wife, and moved out of the Chauruka compound.
Now, Senzeni had a son, whom she named Tinashe, or “God is with us.” While we no longer saw each other every day, she hadn’t moved far, and we still frequently encountered each other walking through the streets of our neighborhood, a high-density township called Highfield.
2008: Senzeni falls ill
After several short trips to Zimbabwe over the years, I finally returned for another year-long stay in 2008, in order to begin fieldwork for my PhD dissertation in ethnomusicology. Returning to Highfield to visit old friends, I quickly learned that Senzeni’s husband had died since my last visit, and she herself was now seriously ill.
Greeting my old friend, I was struck by the desperation apparent on her face. Long stricken with asthma, Senzeni now seemed to have a serious respiratory infection, and was struggling to breathe. She also had a skin condition affecting much of her scalp, and was thin to the point of appearing emaciated. With no steady income, she had resorted to buying popsicles, known locally as “freezits,” in bulk, which she then resold our of her home freezer to neighborhood children walking home from school. Obviously, this creative economic activity didn’t produce enough income for Senzeni’s family, especially as she now had a young daughter, named Jesse, in addition to her son Tinashe.
2009: New hope
Much to the consternation of Tariro’s old program coordinator, Fadzie, I tend to act immediately whenever I feel I might be able to make a difference. Indeed, I quickly sprang into action after visiting Senzeni, arranging for her to see a doctor in the nearby neighborhood of Glen Norah, and paying for her to fill prescriptions to treat each of her various conditions. Going even further out on a limb, I offered Senzeni a part-time job as a librarian at Tariro.
Of course, this wasn’t in our budget, so I paid her salary out of my own pocket, never telling her that her position was anything less than completely official. While she received only $100 a month for her work, this was an incredible sum in comparison to what she had previously been trying to survive on. Relieving her of some of the burden of paying school fees, I also enrolled her daughter, Jesse, in Tariro’s sponsorship program.
2012: Our invaluable librarian
Senzeni threw herself into her work with Tariro with unparalleled enthusiasm. In addition to staffing our lending library, she gradually began to take on a much wider role within the organization. In monthly updates from our program coordinator Fadzie, for example, I started encountering phrases like these:
“Senzeni has been amazing with following up, and making sure our receipts meet the standard we have set for ourselves.”
“Senzeni is currently paying all the fees I couldn’t pay.”
“Senzeni and I have completed most of the home/school visits.”
“Senzeni and I compiled a report which we have submitted to Mercy Corps showing how the funds were expensed as well as the signatures of all the students who benefited from the grant.”
“I do have another copy of the students register, compiled by Senzeni.”
By 2012, Senzeni had already been made an official staff member at Tariro. Yet it was becoming clear that she was much more than simply a librarian. In response, Tariro’s board president, Easther Chigumira, suggested that we raise her salary. In recognition of her invaluable assistance to Tariro, board members voted unanimously to double her salary to $200 per month, giving her a very decent income by Zimbabwean standards.
2014: Mourning Senzeni
While Senzeni’s health had improved somewhat, she was still frequently too ill to come to work over the years. In September, I heard from Tariro’s new Executive Director, Kenny Magwada, that Senzeni was now seriously ill, and seeking treatment at Harare Hospital, a government institution. Soon, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and transferred to the Beatrice Road Infectious Diseases Hospital. I told Kenny to contact me if there was anything I could do, and asked for Senzeni’s telephone number to call her.
A short time later, I received word that Senzeni had been discharged, and was now at home. Visiting me in Rochester was Cosmas Magaya, a wonderful Zimbabwean mbira player, and one of our Zimbabwean trustees. Together, we called Senzeni to see how she was doing. Both of us were shocked at how ill she sounded. In another sign that her illness was very serious, her mother had traveled from the rural areas to care for her.
Once again, I sprang into action, asking friends in Zimbabwean for referrals to a private specialist, and contacting other friends whom I thought might be able to help arrange transportation for Senzeni, as well as covering the initial costs of her visit. As plans were being put into place for this to happen, I received the news that on the morning of October 12th, Senzeni was transported by ambulance back to Beatrice, where she died.
Yesterday, Kenny traveled to Senzeni’s rural home of Mukodzongi Village to attend her burial. Please join me in saying, “Nematambudziko,” or “We share your sorrow,” to Senzeni’s family, especially her mother, and her children Jesse and Tinashe. And if you play mbira, please play a song for my dear friend.