Post-colonial colorism also made dating complicated. At the top of the girlfriend wishlist of every teenage schoolboy was a musikana mutsvuku (light-skinned girl). Even among us bantu-black sub-Saharan Africans, melanin, or too much of it in the shade of one’s skin, was mercilessly maligned. This overt societal inference – the idea that light was right – caused many a darker-hued child to rue his or her pigment. It also very much fueled profitability in the skin-lightening cream industry.
Boys were under significantly less pressure to look perfect. Ladies clearly fawned over the muscle-bound mhitsa (strongman) and vakomana vakanaka (fly guys). But the bar for the average joe was modest. A few decent clothes, a respectable haircut, some disposable cash, the right turns of phrase, and a dance move or two.
Fly guys were easy to pick out in the crowd. Even at St. George’s. They were the boys whose flamboyance made our mandatory school uniform – the khaki shirts and shorts we all wore – appear to be designed, at least for them, haute couture by Calvin Klein. Outside of school, fly guys had the hookup on all the slick threads. However, their coolness was not defined, but only accentuated, by their clothing. Fly guys had so much juice that they could show up to a party in pajamas and generate nothing but respect from their socialite counterparts.
“You rockin’ those flannels real tight, bru.”
“Seen, homie. Seen.”
Fly guys spoke like cigarette smokers. They had that dripping, dragging drawl in their voices. It added depth to their personalities and gave them the mystique of future masculine men of mystery. These boys had a captivating command of themselves and their surroundings. Nothing was new to them. You were made to believe they had been here before. Life, I mean, and high school. Like this was their second go-around, you know? There was much more to their distinctiveness, of course. But the most compelling characteristic of a fly guy was the regularity with which he was commonly in the presence of fly girls.
By definition, fly girls were breathtaking in every conceivable way. Their makeup resembled the ink of permanent markers in that it never ran or faded. They had ice sculptures for hairstyles which stayed in place without fail. Their smiles carried the risk of causing traffic accidents. Indeed, their eyes made truthtellers of liars and liars of truthtellers. These young women were dazzling, not just beautiful. They were otherworldly. Some even had dramatic origin stories. Like superheroes.
“I heard her ole queen (mother) gave birth to her in a steamy geyser, high up in the mountains, ek se.”
“Not surprised, bruh. Explains why she’s so hot.”
Fly girls did none of the normal things other people do. They never went anywhere, they only made appearances. They never ate meals, they only sampled hors d’oeuvres. They never perspired, they only effervesced. They never slept, they only ever rested their eyes.
I am sure in some ways the lives of fly guys and fly girls were difficult. I cannot quite think of any examples presently, so . . . Well, hold on. There was one. When we were teenagers, fly guys and fly girls sometimes had a hard time seeing each other. The fathers of fly girls did not trust fly guys. At all. They were too cool for school. Which meant they were probably trouble. Being suspicious of the young lads, fathers would seldom sanction any cavorting between fly guys and their daughters. The kids, therefore, had to be creative to concoct crafty plans that could culminate in their coming together. They could not pull anything off though without the asset that was known as the klanbet oen.
Most Zimbabwean secondary schools at the time were single-gender programs. Boys and girls therefore seldomly interacted during the school term. The few opportunities that were availed to them for mixed company came in the form of a handful of school-approved social events. Like our end-of-year dances and lip sync contests. Yes, you heard right. I did say lip sync contests.
Remember, this was the 1980s. Allen Fawcett was almost as famous as Madonna. His show, Puttin’ on the Hits (1984 to 1988) fulfilled the desire of millions to see not just stars but everyman in the music videos. Puttin’ on the Hits inspired a global explosion of copycat contests where performers, attention-seekers, and fun-lovers embraced their three-and-a-half-minutes of lip-syncing fame. Zimbabwe was no exception. Nor were its secondary schools.
Between 1988 and 1990, St. George’s College was caught up in the fad. Our school held the mother, the auntie, and the grandmother of all high school lip sync contests. Each competition was fierce and the acts were inspirational. Boys offered solo routines and also danced in lip sync troupes. They practiced rigorously, perfecting moves, and memorizing songs until they were ready to show off their skills. When the highly anticipated evening came, performers gave their very best renditions of tracks by Michael Jackson, Prince, Luther Vandross, Cameo, DeBarge, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Guy, Keith Sweat, Johnny Kemp, Tony! Toni! Tone!, and so many more. Each year was spectacular, and the lip sync contest at St. George’s became a highlight on the teenage social calendar. A be-there-or-be-square event, which, unfortunately for many, was strictly by invitation only.
Not much could make a fly girl visibly excited. But I have to say, they lost their cool over our lip sync contests. Many almost hyperventilating in a delirium of desire to go. How to get invited, however, was the puzzle every girl had to solve. One would think it would have been a slam dunk for fly girls. Yet it was not. Ordinarily, any average joe would have given his right and left arms to spend an evening with a fly girl. But this was different, and most average joes knew better than to invite them. They settled instead for girls who were more naturally within their league.
The average joe understood that inviting a fly girl to our lip sync contest was about as smart as volunteering to be a bug in a Venus Flytrap. She would accept, of course. But with absolutely no intention of actually being with him on the date. Her sole use of him would simply be as a get-out-of-home-free card. A boy of whom her father would likely approve as her escort to the event. Once there, the unspoken norm was that the fly girl would inevitably spend her evening either in the company of her girlfriends or in the arms of a fly guy. This was common knowledge. Average joes therefore knew never to break with convention. For they would only have themselves to blame if ever they succumbed to the temptation of inviting any of the dazzling dames. Doing so would be a tacit choice to serve as an overdressed cabbie for the night. The only precious time he would likely enjoy alone with the fly girl he chauffeured would be on the drive there and on the drive back. With no guarantee that she would even talk to him in either direction. Everyone knew the score. Well, almost everyone. Everyone except the klanbet oens.
“What’s good, bru?”
“Ah, bruh, nothing. Just dossing (sleeping), Josiah. You?”
“Yeah man. You chill with the best of them, my guy. You da man!”
“Nah, you da man, playa.”
“Ha! I’m the last cat to be a playa, homie.”
“That’s not what I heard, cuz.”
“Whatever, blaz. Heard from who?”
“I’m serious. I was at afternoon session at Archies . . .”
Ah, ek se. You were at Archipelago? Ah, that’s lekker (cool), bru. How was it?”
“Yah. I was there. And I bumped into that babe you used to like. What’s her name? Fedora?”
“Oh yah. I mean, Facility.”
“You mean, Felicity.”
“Yah, yah. Felicity. Anyway, Felicity was rollin’ with that girl. You know, Regina.”
“What d’you mean, Regina?”
“Like I said, she was with Regina.”
“No, my guy. Regina, Regina?”
“The one and the same, homie.”
“Ah, spanner in my heart, playa! She’s phyne! Fly, like an eagle, ek se. Yo, I wish I could have been the eyes in your head, bru. Heaven, china! How did she look?”
“What you expect? She looked great. Anyway, when I rocked up, Regina was telling Fallujah . . .”
“Yah, Regina was telling Felicity, that she’s got a thing for you.”
“Ah mayaz. For who again?”
“Josiah man, do I belong to the month of April, ek se?”
“What? No. What? Why?”
“Coz I skeem you skeem I’m a fool, bru.”
“No, I’m telling you. Why would I think you’re a fool?”
“Coz there’s no way Regina’s into me.”
“It’s true. She said so herself. She even asked me to give her your digits (number).”
“You should consider a career in comedy. Coz you funny. Keep it coming, my guy.”
“You don’t have to believe me, china. You’ll see.”
A few days later, the klanbet oen is at his house and the phone rings.
“Hi, howzit, its Regina.”
“Ah, I skeem you got the wrong number.”
“Coz you called my number. It’s obviously a mistake.”
“No. I dialed the right one. I’m calling for you.”
“Wow! It’s coming home! It’s coming home! It’s coming, football’s coming home!”
“Ah, nothing. Just an expression. You called for me?”
“Tee hee. You even laugh pretty.”
Regina giggles again. “Thanks.”
“But seriously. Why you wanna rap with me?”
“Didn’t Josiah tell you? Coz I heard you sweet and I wanna get to know you.”
“I feel like it’s April again.”
“No, nothing. Never mind. So, you say you want to get to know me?”
“Ah, hop scotch! Ndapinda ini! (I’m in!)”
Girls are heard chuckling in the background of Regina’s line.
“No. Nothing. It’s fine.”
“Oh, okay. Cool.”
“Yah. Cool. Cool, cool. Like an Eskimo.”
“You so corny, man. That’s why I want to get to know you more.”
“He’s an idiot,” a different girl’s voice shouts in the background of Regina’s phone.
“Shut up, Florence!”
“Regina, who’s Florence? Is she there with you? What did she say just now?”
“Yah, but don’t worry. She’s my friend. She’s just envious.”
“Look. All the girls are talking about you. But I got dibs on calling you. I’d love us to spend some time and learn about each other.”
“Learn about each other?”
“Yes. You know. Like chemistry.”
“Exactly. I just wish there was an evening coming up when we could do that. I know my dad would like you. He’d definitely say yes if you wanted to take me out somewhere.”
“Wow. That’s great, Regina. You know the St. George’s lip sync contest is coming up soon, right?”
“It is? Oh yes, it is. I had forgotten.”
“This might be a bit forward, but would you be interested in coming to that with me?”
“It’s not forward. I’d love to. Thank you so much, sweetie!”
“Er, you’re welcome, he, he, sweetie. You too.”
“Oh, it’ll be so fun to be a couple at the event.”
“A couple. A couple. Like two? The same, like together? You and me?”
“Yes. If you like.”
“Yes. I like. I do. I do.”
The girls in the background chip in again. “Slow your role, Prince Charming. It’s not a wedding yet.”
“What was that? Your friends again, Regina. I can’t quite hear what they’re saying.”
“Don’t worry. They’re just excited for us.”
“So am I.”
The laughing gets louder. “Sha, I can’t believe it worked! He’s dense. Josiah will be so pleased.”
“Did someone say something about Josiah?”
“No. Florence just said she thinks Josiah will be so pleased that you’ve invited me. He thinks the world of you.”
“Yah. I guess he does. We’re boys. We’re tight.”
“You are. Thanks again. Send me the invite. I’ll give you my address and I’ll ask my dad. Can’t wait! Bye for now.”
More girlish laughter as the phone rings off.
The klanbet oen holds onto the phone for several minutes. Eyes closed and a smile on his face, he is like someone whose biggest dream has just come true.
“A couple. . . Ah, yes man! Ndapinda ini.”
A characteristic of Zimbabwean youth culture during the 1980s was the propensity of teenagers to speak from time to time in a form of backwards language. When we did, our tradition was to reverse the first phenomic segment of a word and leave its remaining parts the same. For example, the reverse of the word “backwards” was kcabwards. Sometimes though, for ease of pronunciation, we would only swap the initial letters of each phenomic segment. Which is how klanbet oens got their name.
A special breed of teenage boy, the klanbet oen was a romantic. He was naïve and believed the best of everybody. Unsuspecting of hidden agendas and unaware of himself and his surroundings, he often fell shy of knowing his own limitations. He was gullible to the point of being cajoled into rushing in where average joes feared to tread. This made the klanbet oen the perfect mark. An at-the-ready asset perceived by fly guys and fly girls to be moving through life almost kcabwards. Unconsciously, as if fast asleep for most of a decade. Like under a “blanket.”