A Short Story By
The receptionist is a well groomed woman who smiles and offers me tea, though I notice her assessing me from underneath her blue eyelids as she types, taking in my black shoes which do not go well with the two-piece suit that some celebrity in America donated to the needy in Africa, but which I purchased from the second hand market at Mupedzanhamo. There is no sugar in the tea, despite my request for two teaspoons, and while I do not want to make a fuss, I am haunted by fears that this could be part of the interview, a disguised chapter on “How assertive are you?”My African upbringing wins and I boldly sip the bitter tea, holding my chin up, the years of reluctant practice in the village coming to my rescue.
The interview is conducted by a panel of three – two gentlemen, one with bulging eyes like a tadpole, the other I have forgotten –and a lady. I am a bit daunted, not fully comfortable with white people, coming from a place where they are few and far between. They ask routine questions which I am well prepared for; what are your weak points, your strong points? Tell us about yourself, they ask at one stage and I want to answer, how much time do you have? Instead like a well mannered child, I give a brief about my background, schooling and interests, and mention my presence in the country, adeptly omitting the mentioning of my present occupation. The lady is busy taking notes and once in a while leans over to whisper to Tadpole. “Do you have any questions Miss Mushore?” Tadpole finally asked.
How much is the salary? I want to ask again but the well behaved child in me takes over again and instead ask how the position had come about and what the growth opportunities are, managing to look as if I really care.
The other man eventually talked, ‘Thank you for your time, we’ll contact you soon.’
Yeah, yeah is my response, the results of my last four interviews still fresh in my mind.
I get home late and to my surprise Mrs Mkoena is sitting in the lounge, seemingly mesmerized by the curtains billowing in the light breeze, a glossy magazine on her lap. If she is surprised by my clothing she gives no sign, being used to my chitenge, faded t-shirt, and cotton dress. She had stormed out in the morning after her bi-weekly quarrel with her husband, which worked well for me as I could sneak out in my unlikely attire.
I change into my cotton dress and sit in the balcony with a book, though I watch passers by in the street below instead, a king looking down from his throne. Nigerians, Senegalese, Cameroonians and Botswana regularly pass by and I marvel at their strange accents, colourful clothes and loud voices.
I like it here.
The novelty is starting to wear off and I can pretend that the wonderland around me has always been part of my landscape. Affluence everywhere I turn my eyes, replacing the gloomy pictures framed on the walls of my mind. It is difficult to believe that I live in a one income household whose sole breadwinner is a government employee. The interior of the house is a page from the magazines that we used to wince before buying for several thousand dollars from vendors in Harare’s Second Street, craving to see how the outside world lived. Camel coloured couches grace the home, blending with thick fawn rugs and oak fittings. The appliances are all state of the art and I compare with this back home, where people work for lifetimes before they can have a fraction of this.
We live on the third floor of a complex just outside the city centre surrounded by a high cream painted wall with a razor wire at the top, much like the thorn bushes that we put around the cattle pens in the village, to keep the cattle in and the wild beasts out. Windows, high and barricaded, add to the sense of imprisonment. I like the grounds though, with green and manicured lawns, screaming for children to run around under the sprinklers, their giggles cutting into the silence.
After a while I leave the balcony and go to the kitchen where I busy myself cleaning the oven, although it is supposed to be my day off. I have my head in this recess when I sense a presence behind me. I find my boss standing by the kitchen door, hands folded, one disproportionate hip against the doorpost. She has changed into light pants and a beige top.
‘Where is the drawer key?’ Her tone suggests I am a lesser being.
I count to two before I respond, ‘It’s in the bedroom. On the dresser.’
‘Its not there!’ It is an almost hysterical scream and I notice her feline features for the first time. She is one of the few people I know who can manage the metamorphosis from calm to explosive in the same minute.
I place my cleaning cloth in the dish beside me – it no longer alarms me that I refer to all cleaning equipment as mine – and gingerly pick myself up, straightening my thin, creased, cotton dress before heading for the bedroom. Mrs Mokoena follows behind me like a nemesis, her heels making staccato sounds on the wooden tiles. In the bedroom, I move a handbag that has been carelessly flung on the dresser and pick up a key, handing it over, arm outstretched, in a gesture that asks what I dare not say loud, ‘What is this?’
The gesture is wasted on her. She snatches the key, turns and starts fiddling with the drawer and for a moment I stand and watch her. Then I make my way out, wondering where I had put my brown jersey, the warm cuddly one with the teddy that does not look like a teddy. Revi had often got confused between purl and knit, so I catch people looking with creased brows at my chest when I am wearing it, puzzled as to why he map of the Dark Continent is peering at them with hung over eyes. Revi, with her good humour, thought it hilarious.
I miss her the most.
I go back to the oven and continue with my cleaning. There is something about half burying my head in its huge, black cavity that gives a sense of relief. My thoughts go back to Mrs Mokoena. Could be true what people say, that we all have doubles somewhere, unknown twins that only the gods know? In my employer I see Kudzi from Typing; the demeanor is unmistakable. Kudzi who would spend her last fare on a magazine to read on the bus, only to be stranded at Machipisa with no fare to get home.
Mrs Mokoena, having found her gin does not come out of her room the remainder of the afternoon. She rarely does, and reminds me of a shy pre-teen hiding from visitors. Sometimes I expect her to emerge one day sucking her thumb, eyes cast down.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully as do all the days. There is not much to do here and I sometimes suspect I am a Gucci bag for Mrs Mokoena, a status symbol. Most of the work is done by machine, including the washing and vacuuming, and I am glad that the black scabs on my knees, a result of too many chores done resting on them, are slowly disappearing. I get listless, my hands heavy, extra appendages, having been used to more work –tilling the ground, harvesting maize, sowing nyimo and in the evenings removing the husks from dry groundnuts around an orange fire. The school years had their own busy schedule. The change to the present is almost painful. Though I sometimes wonder why I am needed here, one look at Mrs Mokoena provides the answer.
Mrs Mokoena is light in complexion and white in her ways, her accent smooth with no rough edges and telltale residue of a mother tongue. Baby soft hands look like they have been forever incubated in kid gloves. The atypical black woman, she neither has a job nor does she hustle and bustle around the house. A kept woman in a sense. She wears dainty clothes that, like a dirty old man, I sometimes run my hands through, feeling gauche despite myself, with my dark sun beaten skin and three dresses. Although slim, lettuce and asparagus are her staple food, a battle against her jutting hips, common to local/Sotho women. God for rearing children, my grandmother back home would have said. Mrs Mokoena does not have any children. She is one of the new generation of black African woman who can make such choices with no fear of tradition and mores or the whispers demanding to know why there are no children. I have not figured the reason for the gin and tonics. I debate telling her to take a month’s excursion to Zimbabwe for an effective slimming regime. Besides, she might miss the joke.
I am a gift to her from her niece, Poppi, who pays my salary. She found me distraught on a park bench one balmy afternoon four months ago, spent from looking for a job and with the dawning realization that my money was running out. There were no inner battles when the job opportunity presented itself. A quick mental conversion of the salary on offer to my home currency made me realize I would be a millionaire many times over. This, and the realization that the salary would be more than I had earned back home, made the decision much easier.
Mrs Mokoena goes through maids with reckless abandon, Poppi tells me one day, and just after four months I am in line for a long service award. ‘Uncle refuses to pay for any more,’ she adds.
‘Uncle’ is a shadow in the background that I rarely see. He speaks gruffly in monosyllables and wears crumpled suits that I used to worry were a bad reflection on my performance before I realized with time that this was just a knack he had. He comes home at ungodly hours with piles of books and files, like an old professor, and I have the feeling, when I look at him, that I am looking at a reincarnated Einstein, only black. He has a comfortable job in government and like a sleuth I peek into his files one day, trying to understand what exactly he does. All I find are lists of names in a spidery handwriting that do not give much away.
I receive a letter from Revi. Revi is my youngest sister in Zimbabwe ‘Things are bad’, she says. For my benefit she has made an elaborate list of the prices of commodities and it is hard to believe I have only been away for six months. Prices are in tens of thousands, figures I struggle to associate with sugar, soap and bread. The government no longer allows maize to be transported from the rural areas to the city, Revi goes on, and maize is expensive in town. The police do set roadblocks like the Gestapo, their eyes missing nothing. I picture them now, uniforms hanging loosely and faces wearing audacious looks that say we are above you, we do not face the same problems you do.
In the empty hours, I think of home and the family that I left behind, especially Aunt Ella, who had premonitions about my trip. Everyone heeded Aunt Ella’s words because they usually came true. She woke me one night, blubbering incoherently, eyes glazed, before coming forth with a warning that things would not work out. I consider what had pushed me away from home like an enemy, Aunt Ell’s premonition notwithstanding, forcing me to abandon the tradition of family, of staying together.
Inflation had crept upon us gradually swallowing us. We filled dirty paper bags with crumpled notes that refused to leave for days on end but would suddenly jump out when commodities were available, leaving us disoriented. It turned us into entrepreneurs overnight, needing more and more of those notes that bought less and less. We sold unlikely products at hot street corners – mangoes, socks, nyimo, vegetables, shoelaces. We became God fearing, hurdling with our families every night, imploring the Almighty Father for help and reading from the book of Jeremiah. For some, the logic cultivated at school agonizing with algorithms suddenly became useful: why buy toilet paper when the same money can get you a loaf of bread? And what was The Herald for anyway? It brought us back to our roots, making us remember remedies from our grandfathers, the tree bark that if used just so would remove the yellow from your teeth and leave a minty taste besides. No additives. The bush whose leaves made a healthy herbal tea that needed no sugar. No nicotine. Overnight we became health freaks, walking everywhere; 14 kilometers to town, 5 kilometers to the district clinic, 7 kilometers to school. We cycled to work and had oil and sugar free diets. We went back to vegetables sautéed. Queues attracted us like magnets and we jumped and jostled guiltlessly with little old ladies, asking questions later, hoping the queues were for oil and sugar. We interacted more, talking to strangers in the queues or those we met on our walking expeditions, listening to them as they went on about their mothers in laws hernias. We were safe from infernal relatives from Mtoko who could no longer visit on a whim because of the prohibitive busfares. The big concern were the rogues who used toy guns and way laid tourists tainting our country’s image rambling on about starving children if caught. Ghanaians identified with us, consoling us with reassurances that they had gone through the same phase years back and had come through it. Our country became famous and with the right looks on our faces, which were not contrived anymore, we could get asylum anywhere. People accepted.
And so I made a plan and headed down south. Armed with no information – people guarded it jealously, believing that any disclosure would mean one less job for their clans – I braved the unknown.
I remember the ten hour trip in the chicken bus, the luggage crammed passages, the fat women with big hips and big breasts who had territorial air over the bus and gave inferior looks to novices like us. They ate endlessly, hands waving as they spoke to friends sitting at the back of the bus. These were the doilies women, who had made these trips a thousand times before. They had started selling doilies years ago and having built houses and sent children through university could silence their husbands with single looks.
Occasionally they broke into song.
Mudzimu woye mudzimu woye
Woyewo mudzimu woye
Vamwe vedu baba vari kutambura
Vamwe vedu mambo vari kushupika
Woyewo mudzimu woye
I thought an old war song from the liberation struggle most inappropriate though some would have called it symbolic – was this not a struggle of sorts?
Muuyu trees replaced muzhanje in the terrain and for a stretch the landscape changed to sandy soils with tiny tufts of bush, scarcely a foot high. Occasionally one would shoot up several feet in defiance.
I remember jostling sweaty bodies at the overcrowded border and the disdain on the faces of the officials as they looked at us as if we were cattle at a dip. The immigration officer looked back and forth between my face and my passport photo, the photographer having captured the paned look on my face as I died from the pervasive smell of stale masese emanating from him. Getting another shot done had been out of the question.
So here I am in the spacious apartment that makes the Mokoena household, which I had been introduced to after floundering around staying in a communal hostel recommended by the doilies women. All attempts at getting a job had been fruitless until Poppy found me.
I try to be inconspicuous and dull but keep having close shaves now and then. On the rare days the Mokoena’s have lunch together, I am busy serving them when Mr Mokoena starts telling Mrs Mokoena about the Dalai Lama but cannot remember where he is from, hazarding a few guesses and shaking his head.
‘I think he is from Tibet,’ I finally volunteer the answer.
Mrs Mokoena looks at me doubtfully, folk and knife suspended mid-air, her whole posture a question mark.
‘Why? So he is!’ says her husband in uncharacteristic animation.
Looking at me with unconcerned resentment his wife asks accusingly ‘How do you know that?’
I like to read is my response. From then on I dive blindly for a book each time I see them approach. The other day I appeared holding The Adaptive Radiations of Neotropical Primates.
I open the door at the ring of the bell one afternoon to find Rufaro standing before me in a neat white suit, small bag clutched in both hands, sunglasses carelessly perched in her hair completing the picture of elegance. She opens and closes her mouth soundlessly, and stunned. We take stock of each other and I am conscious of my sun scorched t-shirt and the chitenge material carelessly tied around my waist. I suspend all thought, or try to.
‘Tendai…’ she manages after a while.
I do not give her a chance to say more. Regaining my composure, I quickly usher her into the lounge amazed that my feet can still carry me. After knocking on Mrs Mokoena’s bedroom door and announcing her visitor. I withdraw to the kitchen and eavesdrop to the chatter. From what I gather, Poppi had sent Rufaro with my salary.
I serve them drinks, adeptly avoiding looking in Rufaro’s direction. From the corner of my eye I see her follow my movements with her eyes as she toys with one of the cushions on the couch.
What seems like eons later, I escort her to the door.
‘Bye Tendai,’ says the Rufaro that I am more familiar with, an extra bright smile on her face. ‘I see your boss just loves you,’ she adds, the sarcasm unmistakable, as is the emphasis on ‘boss.’
That night I lie awake in bed, tossing and turning, trying to ward off thoughts triggered by Rufaro’s visit. While I am comfortable with my circumstances, I see myself through her eyes and cannot help feeling sorry for myself.
I finally fall asleep and dream of Rufaro in her neat white suit, wrestling me for my cleaning cloth.
The next day I am languid and wander around the house, Rufaro’s arrival having sapped something out of me. Finally, desperate for someone to talk, I take a walk to the shops five minute away and call Agnes with a tinge of guilt for only doing this today. A chubby, fun loving girl who works as a waitress, she calls me regularly and complains that I never return the favour. We have known each other from school, from which she dropped out because of lack of funds. I rarely get much from her in the line of advice, but hearing her talk often helps me piece ideas together and sort things out in my head.
Agnes always speaks as if it was for the benefit of an unseen audience that she can later turn to in self-exoneration and say, ‘See? You heard me warn her!’ She disapproves of what I am doing and says so in many words, maintaining that people should only get employed as domestic workers abroad and then only for whites. Her spiel has always been, ‘Look at you, you are beautiful, you have the potential. What are you doing to yourself? You could go so far.’ Despite her assessment of me, I have features that are contradictory: tall and slim but somehow with chubby cheeks and small slanting eyes that earned me the nickname China during my school days. I am dark, and have a dimple on one cheek, a hole that appears as if on cue each time I smile.
‘She didn’t recognize you,’ is Agnes’s first comment when I tell her about Rufaro. I feel a quiet anger rising at the absurdity of the statement as if she just said my own mother did not recognize me. The rest of the conversation takes the same turn, words that do not do much to allay the storm that I can feel starting to brew inside me. I hang up, disappointed, feeling emptier but not sure who to blame.
Over the next few days I ward off the voices that threaten to invade my mind by keeping myself busy, my first stop being the oven, my haven. Next I clean the windows that I cleaned barely a week ago, perching on the ladder precariously to reach them, scaring myself by wondering: what if I just jump through the window and land in the middle of the Batswana and the Senegalese and the Cameroonians in the street below with a splash, and stop them in their tracks. I wash the curtains, dust every nook of the oak wall unit and even clean the houseplants leaf by leaf. I drop into bed every night exhausted and sleep like a baby, my strategy working much better than I had anticipated. Though I have developed the ultimate closed mind, I wonder fleetingly how much Rufaro told Mrs Mokoena about me. Her actions towards me have not changed, and though I consider myself a master at reading her moods, of late it has become difficult, her face appearing veiled suddenly.
I am sitting in the balcony one afternoon, a book in hand, when in a moment of weakness I let my guard down and thoughts find me in their multitude. They bombard and imprison me, leaving me no room for escape. They are intertwined, like a chain, each tugging the next. The first to rear its ugly head is a question that demands an answer. What is better, having a good job back home with authority and a sense of purpose and achievement but no money, or being here, doing this? It tugs the next: how much are you willing to hold on to a good job and watch your family suffer and go without? This also pulls the next: do you see things changing here? And back there? And so it goes until I loose all sense of time. I entertain the thoughts every hour over the next few days, giving them leeway and letting them take control. I turn things over, take this view, weigh that, consider the next and rescind the other until I am confused.
Irene Agoshitinyu is a South African based writer.