When the woman gets the rejection letter for her green card application, she rips it twice- into quarters then into eighths- and throws it into the general direction of the wastepaper basket before rushing out of her apartment and climbing into her parked Fiat. She is late and annoyed. The traffic offends her by existing and the weather offends her by being summery. ‘Just my luck,’ she thinks.
The woman doesn’t want to go home and anyone who knows her can tell something is wrong – she takes her disappointment out on all the interns at the advertising firm she works at (and the receptionist and two random guys who get in the elevator with her). She even takes it out on Jack, the cute guy who sometimes holds the gym bag for her when she boxes. She kicks it so hard he doubles over and forgets to be charming for a few seconds but recovers enough to tell her she has amazing footwork.
After work and Krav Maga, the woman recovers enough of her determined energy to piece the rejection letter like a broken jigsaw and tape it back together with transparent sellotape. She can’t read all the letters but she can read well enough to know she has three weeks to pack and as soon as she reads that paragraph she thinks of all the possibilities: she could ask Jack the cute guy at the gym to marry her, she could live illegally like Martin who is a sub tenant in Patricia her neighbour’s guest room, she could appeal the decision on the grounds of, of… something. The woman is screwed.
I wake to the sound of off- key singing. Mama. Like everyone else who has a terrible voice, she loves to sing and she loves to sing when she’s angry. She punctuates her verses and chorus with a banging of pots that can only be called “making breaking breakfast.”
Ndiri kuona humambo, hwekudenga, the banging of an electric kettle onto its stand – tea. Matambudziko epanyika, mufaro kudenga, the banging of a tin onto the counter – baked beans. Nginde nginde, bhero rinorira, the setting of a pan on the stove – bacon.
Ndiri kuona humambo, the harsh crack of a metal fork against an egg shell – omelette.
Yesterday, Baba got fired for stealing money. Not for Mama’s diabetes medicine or for anything else but to support Leanna his girlfriend. He would have gone to jail too, except Babamukuru James is a lawyer and fixed it all for him. We survived that and I was okay with him keeping a girl stashed somewhere in the ghetto until something crazier happened.
I guess that’s why Mama is angry. I guess that’s why she murdering the pan and the eggs and the can of Cashel Valley baked beans. Families in Zimbabwe struggle because people are getting laid off but Baba has all the good sense to be fired. I get why Mama’s angry but does she have to abuse my ears?
I decide to take a shower and maybe wash off the tiredness of yesterday’s hockey game. I washed the sweat of yesterday but my hamstrings are screaming at me for not exercising off season. That’s when I hear the giggling.
I have my drying towel in my one hand and toiletry bag in the other and I’m about to use the side of my fist to pound on the bathroom door and tell Nonia to get out before she empties the geyser and I hear giggling from Mainini Claire’s room. The thing is, relatives pass through our house like it’s a railway station and Mainini Claire has been with us for six months – November through March. In all those months I’ve been close to her. She’s much older than Nonia and I and so she’s the Cool Grown Up.
Mainini Claire’s door is cracked open so I take a step into the room and there she is with Baba. She keeps saying, ‘stop it, Baba waChido, kani!’ but you can tell from the giggles she doesn’t really want him to stop it, not for anything.
Mainini Claire is facing away from me and Baba’s body is facing mine. He raises his head and our eyes lock. I hold his gaze longer than I want to. You know, sometimes you look and your eyes paralyse you though you want to look away. Like when a chicken looks at a slithering python’s diamondback, forgetting it will die. I walk away when Mother drops a metal pot in the kitchen. It sounds so loud I think Mainini Claire will look back at me. It’s not like I’m afraid of her. I just don’t want to see her face after seeing her do that, you know?
I guess Mama wasn’t making a racket for the sake of making a racket but so she wouldn’t hear the giggle. Because a good Shona woman never hears “the giggle” because she knows whatever happens she should be a rock. That’s what her tete probably told her at her kitchen party or bridal shower, whichever one she had. I can see it in my head.
‘Don’t hear the giggles,’ says Aunt Mary, with her lovey gift of Kango pots.
‘Never cry in front of your husband,’ says her Tete Regina with her set of cutlery.
Mai Mufundisi, the pastor’s wife tells her marri-yages are made of prayer not fire, ‘if ever he lays his hands on you, hold steadfast and fight with your prayers. Never leave.’
Too bad Baba is not the beating kind, he’s the straying kind.
The woman in the platform heels checks in for her flight. She doesn’t look happy. The flight attendant would ask her if she would like a drink but he sees that she’s travelling long distance. Besides, she’s African African and not African American like he is. Those ones tend to stick together, he thinks to himself as he enters information into his computer.
Father knocks on my door in the evening. I’m dressed for bed but since it’s still eight o’clock, I’m reading People Magazine and listening to DJ Scott on Power FM. It must be The Drive or something.
Baba doesn’t wait for me to answer, he just walks in.
‘I could have been dressing,’ I say.
He ignores me starts to talk about the weather and the news and a thousand different things I don’t want to hear. He doesn’t look at me and I don’t look at him.
‘Chido Baby, we must talk,’ he finally says, ‘about what you think you saw.’
I just look at him. He doesn’t look at me.
“About what you saw.”
He looks at me. I don’t look at him. Trey Songz is singing One Love on my radio.
‘That expensive school you go to… I wouldn’t afford it if your mother and I were stuck in an ugly divorce battle.’
I don’t nod but I can tell he wants me to.
‘You take care of me and I’ll take care of you,’ is all he says before he stalks out. He might have stopped at the door to say ‘goodnight darling’ but I’ve drowned him out in Taio Cruz’s Break Your Heart and the smell of still-wet Cutex.
Three lay-overs. Three airports. The drinks on this plane are free. Free. 18 hours. She’s spoken thirteen words the whole flight:
‘I think that’s my seat,’ at the beginning, when his laptop was sprawled across the middle seat. What she meant: your laptop’s on my seat.
‘Chicken,’ when the stewardess flight attendant asked beef or chicken.
‘It’s quite alright,’ when he bumped into her and apologized.
‘No, thank you,’ when he offered to buy her something.
‘Excuse me,’ twice, when she went to the bathroom.
Baba gets fired for sticking his hands in the honey pot, again. This time I wasn’t fazed. It rolled over me like water on the cliff of Vic Falls, the same way Mr. Muleya’s exegesis of the Anglo Ndebele War rolls over my head on Monday mornings these days. What is it to me that Mzilikazi stole cattle from Tshaka or that Allen Wilson was CJR’s bosom buddy? It is nothing.
When Mrs Munyai, the Geography teacher asks me to stay behind after class, I school my face into a granite wall. I know what she’ll be asking and it won’t be the first. The senior lady has already asked me with a face of mock pity. Mr Nyakudya, who teaches English has already assured me that I can tell him anything but I know they’re all gossips. Last week in Guidance and Counselling, Ms Ncube was telling us about a “certain girl” whose parents were getting divorced. We all knew she was talking about Linda Phiri.
‘I won’t be asking about your personal life,’ says Mrs Munyai, ‘so you can wipe that frown off your face.’ She lifts her weave to reveal a scar that starts on her forehead and disappears beneath her hairline.
‘My uncle did that to me and I spent years hating him. If I’d followed my own script, my family’s script, I would still be in the village, sleeping with my uncle whenever one of my siblings needed new clothes or medicine. Or I would have married the first man that asked me just to get away but I didn’t. I worked hard and sold tomatoes and saved and got into a teacher’s college.’
She throws a fat brown envelope at me. ‘Now here are some application forms for schools that give scholarships. I’ve watched you play hockey and I know you’re good but that’s not enough. If you work on your grades and show your face at one or two cultural events then maybe I might remember the name of a friend who works at the Field Hockey Foundation.’
I take the envelope and thank her for it, even though I don’t think I’ll be needing any hand outs. Baba has nine lives like a cat and no matter how many companies he’s stolen from, people still trust him with their money, the way Mama trusts him with her heart.
Yet this time it appears I do need hand outs because Baba didn’t pay the rent and Mama keeps telling him that if he’d bought a house like she’d told him to we wouldn’t be in this mess. Baba throws a pot at her but she ducks out of the way. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Baba grabs his keys and walks out the door. We all know where he’s going.
Later, mother will walk into my room with a plate full of groundnuts. She’ll shell them and pop them into her mouth, turning the plate towards me so I can partake in her snack.
‘I’m not a stupid woman,’ my mother says to me, ‘God gave me hands and I’ve used them. I can tell you’re worried but I’ve been using my hands. The child I gave birth to will always have a roof over her head.’
She’ll tell me that the Tanzanian cloths she sells, the eggs and chickens she keeps in the backyard are for a reason. ‘It may not seem like much,’ she says, ‘but I know how to save.’
Then she’ll scold me because my shoes are lying around.
The woman in the red coat never smiles as she passes through immigration control at Oliver Tambo International. Countries Requiring Visas. She joins the queue, takes her spectacles off in front of the infra-red camera. Watches the man with a gold tooth stamp her green passport, looks at her almost expired American visa. ‘I’m in transit she says.’ He waves her off.
The girl in the red coat collects her baggage from carousel eight, checks them in at the SAA counter. She buys herself something like dinner. She goes through immigration control all over again but this time they’re more relaxed. Because she’s leaving. They’re always more relaxed when you’re leaving.
I get home to raised voices and overturned furniture. I’m not sure what’s going on but Nonia runs into my arms weeping.
Mother keeps screaming, ‘over my dead body!’ and Nonia cries silently. It’s only when Baba goes to the bar, leaving us to clean the house that Mama walks over to the kitchen humming one of those hymns but this time it is for strength and not entertainment.
Nonia is going back to her own parents. Her father isn’t doing too well financially and her mother was pregnant with her ninth child. Baba says she should go back. Nonia is also fifteen and there is a man waiting to marry her. Baba knows what will happen if we send her back, but he doesn’t seem to care.
Baba says all our misfortunes are because we’re taking care of Nonia. That if Nonia leaves, things will be better. This is what Nonia tells me. He ignores the fact that he was laid off because he stole money because his small house is having a baby. I’d tell him that if he hadn’t gone to the bar, but he’s gone to the bar.
I wish I was Nonia. Not because I want to leave but because I’ve always been stronger than Nonia and that in certain ways I was more prepared to deal with an old husband. Nonia’s always sick or sickly. If Nonia leaves she’ll become like her mother. She’ll grow old before her time. She’ll cover her hair in a white doek and cover her body with white garments. She’ll stop eating bacon because pork is evil and she’ll learn to carry loads.
She’ll carry in her stomach little babies. Some will thrive, some won’t survive. She’ll give birth under the gaze of midwives somewhere in the bush. Western hospitals, western medicine is sinful even though Nonia has always been sick or sickly.
She’ll carry loads on her head – 50 kg pockets of maize, buckets of water from the well. They’ll break her back because she’s always been sick or sickly because she’s always had headaches that make her blind sometimes and because she can never breathe when she catches cold and because western medicine is evil. People will call me Mainini and Nonia Maiguru, a mistake they make with Mama and Mai Nonia.
The escalator that takes her down to gate A24 has a Buddie advert on it. That advert is a sign, an omen. She walks down the row of gates A23 Lusaka, A22 Windhoek, A24 Harare.
The girl in the red coat hasn’t seen so many of her country men in one place for the past eight years. this is a very good population sample: there are all Indians in an Indian corner, the white people in a white corner, the students (children of today) dressed like they’re from elsewhere and the middle aged women in black skirts from Topics looking at everyone disdainfully. The more things change the more they stay the same.
Nonia’s husband looks thirty and rough. I’m not sure what scares me most – the thirtiness or the roughness. Mother catches my eye and shakes her he ad at me constantly. She knows that I’m difficult and that the round hut is making me even more difficult.
Nonia’s belly is swelling in a way I hate. She reminds me of the women who sell vegetables at the side of the road. The ones who wear dresses that are clearly not let out to help them breathe better. The ones who work until they can’t walk anymore. The women who never get tired. Nonia has that look except her face isn’t harsh yet. She has one of those baby faces that make her look twelve even though she’s fifteen. Her skin hasn’t been broken by pimples yet.
I ask my brother-in-law if he’ll let Nonia come to Harare to give birth. My mother would be happy to pay for it.
Nonia’s husband looks uncomfortable, angry. Already, Nonia is trying to appease him. She has become A Good Wife.
Noni has turned into her mother and I have turned into mine. My mother married up, married father who came from the same village but lived in Harare and worked in an office. She hit the jackpot. Mainini Mai Nonia married down. Married a man who was part of the apostolic sect. She was younger than Mama by seven years but she looks decades older, even when Nonia and I were little, Mainini looked older. She was always suckling a kid; there was always another kid running round her hut with a napkin on another child out with the cattle another child… and Nonia.
Nonia who was meant to marry Madzibaba Chingozho when she was of age, but who fell ill when she was ten. Ill enough for Mainini to send her to our house and ask mother to take her to a Modern Doctor. Father didn’t object. Those were the days when he was rolling in money. Rolling so deep he wanted all the relatives gathered around him so he could take them around the house on the grand tour:
“This is the TV from Germany, these are the sofas from Dubai, mind your step we just put in new tiles, God has blessed us this year.”
God has blessed us? God has blessed us? Father prayed at many altars, as I would soon learn, but God’s wasn’t one of them.
Yet, even though Baba was the showing off type, he didn’t go so far as to enroll her into the same private school I went to when it became clear that her parents weren’t in a hurry to take her back. No. Father looked for a good respectable government school for his niece.
Later, I will slip her a fifty when her husband’s not looking. That’s all my saved pocket money plus things I sold. Nonia will whisper to me that he hasn’t stopped laying his hands on her. But right now Mama apologises and tells me to do the same. “Tichapagadzirisa,” she says to him and the waves are smoothed.
There’s a thunderstorm brewing above Joburg as the Boeing takes off. Lightning looks strange when you’re cruising at 30 000 feet. The woman in the red coat closes her eyes because she hates the way her stomach seems to drag her down.
The man sitting beside her thinks she’s sleeping and hogs all the space on the armrest. He is startled when she opens her eyes after take-off. He would ask her what she’s reading on her Kindle Reader but he can tell she’d be annoyed by it. All men annoy her. The man in 32B doesn’t know this. Besides, she’s been staring at the same page for the last ten minutes.
I leave Harare on a Thursday. It is like swimming to a light. Like I’m at the bottom of a dark lagoon and there is a bright light that beckons me, causes me to drop my luggage on the way up.
I leave Mama and her eyes that are always saying sorry, her ears that don’t hear giggles, her mouth that is always singing to drown out betrayals.
I drop Nonia and the guilt she brings: I could have saved her. I could have saved her. I could have saved her.
I drop Baba and his ultimatums: you scratch my back I scratch yours.
I drop myself like a sack of potatoes: you’ll gain weight like your mother after you give birth.
There are relatives here to say goodbye. Baba buys snacks for them all, probably with stolen money. Baba managed to convince an old school buddy to give him a job.
‘You know the people at my old workplace were all vanaMukanya from the same village. A little money goes missing and they blame the outsider. I sold the Cherokee a month ago but after paying Chido’s fees and throwing some coins at the landlord… you know how it is shaa.’
The old boy felt sorry for my father and forwarded his CV to one of those foreign business owners who needed Zimbabwean shareholders to hold onto exactly 51% of their companies. Being a peacock, he insisted on driving an ML to show potential clients that the company was lucrative. It is in this ML that he drove the whole clan to the airport, to show the relative who tried to bewitch him with munyama that he can always take care of himself.
Whether or not one of the relatives tried to bewitch Baba, they are all here to say goodbye. Children that go to the States don’t visit as often as children who go to South Africa. They weep on my shoulders and weep into white handkerchiefs and ask if I’ll miss them. They tell me to look for Mukoma Peter who lives in Arizona who is my second cousin twice removed. They tell me to call often, to not forget who I am. They tell me to not marry an American.
‘We are Shona people,’ they say to me.
‘We marry our own,’ is left to settle in the air like smoke above a braai stand.
There’s a power outage that grinds the carousel at Harare international to a halt. The boys get the generator up and running but this slows down the entire process. All the passengers look frazzled and slightly annoyed. The girl in the red coat keeps following the trend of the conveyer belt as it goes round and round. She picks two big Samsonites off the belt. A man in glasses asks if she needs help. She doesn’t. She’s a big girl. She can carry her own suitcases.
Being the one that married up, it is mother’s job to take care of everyone else, whether they say thank you or not. She helps Mainini MaiNonia, slips hundreds in her hands whenever no one is looking, tells her it’s for the kids whenever she refuses it.
She helps Sekuru Pfungwa who is always starting a new business venture and needs a little to tide him over till he makes a profit. Helps Sekuru Pfungwa even though she knows (we all know) he’ll take all her fifties and buy everyone a round at Murambinda Tavern. Still Mama gives him all those fifties. She wants to go to heaven.
She helps Mainini Claire, the maternal cousin who just got a job in the city, needs a place to stay until her finances are in order, until she can rent her own place in a suburb somewhere. But Mainini Claire decides to cut out the middleman.
Mainini Claire has a Thought. It occurs to her that instead of receiving always and saying thank you (always) she could be the one in the main bedroom, she could be the one spraying pfaaa – pfaaa perfume that comes in a see through bottle and smells like flowers, that lingers in the room even after Mai Chido has left. She could be the one sitting in the passenger seat of the Jeep Cherokee instead of sharing the back seat with me and Nonia. The possibilities are endless.
So Claire dances the dance that many hopeful women danced before her: her laughter becomes high pitched and over long, she laughs at jokes that aren’t funny. She offers to make her cousin-in-laws breakfast (lunch and supper). She shortens the hem of her skirt, she lightens her skin with Fair & Lovely and spends an extra half hour making herself look prettier, prettier. Me and Nonia think she has a boyfriend, Mama thinks it is what The City does to every young woman from the village. This is her mistake.
Claire’s mistake is that she begins to hope. Her second mistake is that she does what hopeful women do – she begins to nag. She asks Baba when he’s leaving ‘Gladys.’
‘I won’t be leaving her,’ he says. He hides it well but he’s angry. No one calls his wife Gladys or tells him what to do, especially not an upstart village girl who wasn’t with him when he was Still Poor. Definitely not this girl. She should respect his wife. The walls are thin and they tell me these stories.
A man can sow wild oats and settle down with a good girl. A man can play around with pretty girls as long as he comes home. As long as he knows which way is home. As long as a wife has the Chapter Five Marriage, she inherits everything.
Women all over Zimbabwe tell themselves this like it’s a gospel truth – it’s better to be the main chick than the side chick. But you lack something, that’s why he comes to me, the side chick says with a Cheshire smile. Main chick vs side chick. Main chick vs side chick. Main chick vs side chick.
Mainini Claire moves out on a Monday. She says she’s found a room to rent in Mabvuku. She says that it will be easier for her that way. She’s not smiling when she says it.
‘But that’s far from town, you’ll be late for work every day,’ says Mama.
‘But transport is expensive, isn’t it cheaper for Mai Chido to take you when she drives the girls to school?’ asks Baba.
They’re both glad she’s leaving.
‘I’ll be sharing a house with one of my co-workers and she has a car,’ Mainini Claire says.
Mama asks if she’ll be contributing fuel. Nonia spreads jam on her bread. I keep sprinkling salt on my omelet, birds are chirping in the garden.
Mainini Claire says she hadn’t thought about it.
Main chick vs side chick. Main chick vs side chick. Main chick vs side chick. A lot can be said about that Chapter Five marriage.
Some passengers look up onto the glass screen where their relatives are pointing and laughing and waving with exaggerations—they can’t be heard so they must enunciate their actions. The girl in the red coat doesn’t look or wave. She saw her father sitting in the gallery the moment she arrived, but a perverse corner of her heart wants to make him wait. Besides, coming home wasn’t her idea at all. Circumstances simply forced her hand.
Nonia dies on a Wednesday. She dies giving birth to her second fourth child. Ngoni was born healthy, I got him a baby blanket and Mama bought the pram. Nonia looked thin when we went to say, ‘makorokoto.’ She lost two others before this one. She didn’t tell me herself but Mama whispered it over the phone like it was a state secret. I could hear her tears over the Atlantic Ocean. She wasn’t sniffing.
I am just leaving a Sociology Class when my phone begins to vibrate. It reflects three missed calls. I think Mama can’t find her mixer again. My mother’s always losing things and I‘m always finding them, even from afar.
‘Hello,’ I say to the mouthpiece of the Nokia.
‘Hello,’ Mama’s voice cries back at me.
I can hear them singing Hatina Musha Panyika over the static. At first I think it’s Baba who’s gone. My blood runs cold. I’m pierced by the fear of a young person who’s never buried a soul she loved.
‘Is it… Is Baba okay?’
‘Yes, yes, Baba is fine… Nonia,’ Mama says and she starts to cry the cry of the one who has already been crying all night, who has already been singing Hatina Musha all night long, who has been rocking Mainini Mai Nonia’s body all night long because no mother should bury a daughter and who has been organizing things because that is what big sisters do. She cries the cry of the one who’s been trying to contact Nyaradzo Funeral Services all night, who has been answering Mainini MaiNonia’s phone to tell people that ‘yes the burial will be kumusha and no there will not be a Nyaradzo bus from Harare but maybe they can catch a lift with Babamukuru Tsikwa.’
A hand takes Mama’s phone away from her voice and says “Chinyararai MaiChido” before disconnecting her call, leaving me feeling cold and alone because in this big country of star spangled banners and waitressing after class, I long to listen to Mama’s weeping and the sound of ruwadzano ladies singing Aigara Nevamwe Zvakanaka. I sit down on the ground because I’m out of steam and watch strangers walk to and fro. I do not weep.