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Vongai glanced at her wrist watch and sighed,as she waited for Nurse Margaret to release her. It was 17:47 and from her calculations, it would take her 20 minutes to walk from St Andrew Fleming Hospital to the bus stop. She knew she was going to be late to leave the city centre and being on her second warning did not bring any comfort. Ever since Ian Smith announced the UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) a statement adopted by the Cabinet of Rhodesia in November 1965, announcing that Rhodesia would no longer be under the British government and solely ruled by the white minority in Rhodesia, life for the blacks in Rhodesia had become worse.
The United Kingdom, Commonwealth and the United Nations had deemed the UDI illegal, however Rhodesia had broke away and continued on as an unrecognised state with the assistance of South Africa and Portugal. The UDI was a system which promoted segregation and discrimination with silly regulations such as blacks where not allowed to be in the City Centre past six pm, black people had their own restrooms,mode of transport, the only brand of alcohol they were allowed was Chibuku and they were exposed to limited education. Vongai had only qualified to get a job as a nurse at St Andrew’s Fleming because her grandfather had been a missionary who had helped convert myriads of African people. She had an opportunity most black people in Rhodesia could only dream of, which is partly why she never complained. However, Nurse Margaret and all the other white nurses made sure she knew that she was and always would be – a kaffir.
She walked towards the entrance to see if Nurse Margaret was on her way to take the handover for the night shift. Vongai saw Nurse Margaret a short distance from the entrance, leaning against the wall lighting a cigarette. She was not surprised by her actions, Nurse Margaret had overtly expressed that she did not like black people and saw them as inferior. Expecting her to be concerned about her safety, would be silly and naive. She signed with fear and uncertainty as she contemplated on whether to go to her or wait for her to come and release her. Waiting would mean she would have to walk all the way from the hospital to Mufakose where she lived and going to Nurse Margaret would mean starting a war she would never win. So she stood by the door and waited for her.
“Vongai,”, Nurse Margaret barked as she walked towards Vongai who was removing her stockings behind the reception area, preparing for the long walk home. She knew there would no mode of transport for black people and the only safe, well, relatively safer way was to walk the ten miles home. “Vongai“, she called again her voice husky and loud. At 56, Nurse Margaret looked older than her age. Her skin pulled with every expression and the way she drew her eyebrows made her look animated and angry at the same time. “Go on now, won’t you be late catching your bus just standing there?”. Vongai hurriedly went out the door,more afraid of the journey ahead rather than Nurse Margaret’s rants. Being a black person walking in the city after 6pm was dangerous in Rhodesia, but being a twenty-five year old black woman walking alone after 6pm, was deadly. If anything were to happen to her, no-one would come to her rescue or aid because the law clearly stated: NO KAFFIRS IN THE CITY AREA AFTER 6PM. Vongai ran towards the kaffir designated bus stop, which was the same direction as her secret route. There was not a soul in sight as she half ran and half walked home, only the creaking of crickets and her thoughts kept her company. She prayed Tungamirai would be waiting for her at the bus stop or fingers crossed he would walk towards the City to meet her halfway. If that was the case, she knew he would take the route they had chosen to use if such an incident took place. Tunga had suggested it after many black people had been imprisoned or killed after using the main road from the City after 6pm. He always worried about her after all, he had vowed to always love and protect her till death. Pacing through the dusty pathway which was covered with shrubs and long stems of grass- Vongai thought of the one bedroom house she owned with Tunga. He had just finished painting their kitchen walls, the smell sickened her but she still looked forward to being there because it was her home. Having lived with four brothers and three sisters, having to share a house with one person was like heaven on earth. With Tunga she no longer had to time herself when she was having a bath or just looking at herself on the bathroom mirror. These tiny pleasures made her long for home on her long day shifts at the hospital.
She increased her pace when she saw the lights from the Bakayawa Grocery Store, this indicated she was half way home and she was at least safe from the white patrols but still a target from the local robbers. At least her own kind would only harass and steal from her, they would not beat her to a pulp or rape her. With the creaking of crickets still keeping her company, Vongai thought of her future and if bringing children to a world where their future was determined by the colour of their skin, a world where you could never be yourself before you were told who you were suppose to be. She had had this discussion with Tunga, and numerous times he had threatened to send her back to her father’s house. She wished he understood her perspective, the pain she went through each day at work and the life they lived, was not one that God had intended for anyone of them.
“Please, I do not want to hear about this nonsense. Wazvinzwa? Do you hear me? I want children, all my friend have children and now they think you are infertile or i am impotent.” He had said the last time they had talked about it. She remembered how he was holding a half stab of cigarette, leaning forward in his chair as she sat opposite her.
He always furrowed his eyebrows when he was upset, and he would never look at her. Vongai stood up and went to the kitchen, she stood by the empty sink where Tunga had washed the dishes earlier that day. She thought of how he was a good husband and never made her feel any lesser than himself, even though she was a woman but that would never be enough to have her bring a child into such a hateful and painful world. She took a glass from the rack, poured water then left it on the sink untouched. She walked towards the living room which also acted as the dining room and said goodnight to Tunga. He grunted at her as he slammed their 21′ black and white television to adjust the volume.
“Where is Fungai?,” Tunga asked as he put his pint down, “I thought he was coming to join us tonight wani”. He gestured at Gumi for him to pass him the lighter he held in his hand and sat beside Tamuka who was getting comfortable in his seat.
“Ah iwe,you should know never make plans with a man who has just gotten married”, said Gumi as he blew the cigarette smoke in the air. They all laughed.
“Knowing Fungai, I am pretty sure the wife is already pregnant. You remember how quickly his first wife got pregnant. First week of marriage!“.
“Only to find out the child was not his“, Tamuka said passively and the three men all laughed out loud in the dingy shebeen. It was owned by Tom Brown,the only white person who had willingly chosen to live amongst the blacks. He had been threatened by the UDI police to leave Mufakose and live amongst his own kind. At one point, he had been offered a two bedroom house and a pub in the highlands area where it was predominantly white. However, he would have to leave everything behind and that included his wife Natsai and their three brown children.He never moved nor did he even consider the “options” because to him, love was more of a right not a possibility.
Not everyone thought of it to be wise, especially the black men of Mufakose who always reminded him what a grave mistake he made. They thought him stupid for not taking the opportunity to leaves the slums and have a proper and decent life. Some thought he was mocking them by turning the government down, making it seem as if it was bearable and easy to be a black person in Rhodesia. He had tried to explain numerous times and overtly, that his views were not the same as other white people, he believed in equality and mutual respect and did not expect to be treated differently because he was white. The men would all sneer,shaking their heads and others laughing. Equal and mutual respect?Is this man alright upstairs?He thinks it’s fun for us to only be limited to garden boys and builders regardless of how intelligent we are? They would all take away something different from what he said, but none of them ever considered he meant what he said.
Tom walked over to the corner at the back of the shebeen where the three men lounged, with a quarter bottle of Jack Daniels and shot glasses. There was a small round table that looked like it had been handed over several generations before it found itself in the shebeen, a brown double sofa with tattered arm rests where Tunga and Tamuka sat and three bar stools circled the small table. The low roof made Gumi hunch as he stood near the window blowing the cigarette out. The three men saw Tom walking towards them at the same time and exchanged glances.
“Hona, your friend has brought a peace-offering for the pain his people are causing us”, Tamuka whispered to Tunga who was nursing his second pint of Chubuku.
“Ah iwe, leave him be. He is trying to be friendly, give him a break.”, Tunga said.
“Hey, be nice to him. He has whiskey, its been a while and Tamuka don’t spoil this for me. We do not need to hear how as a black man you are oppressed and can only use one ply tissue paper”, Gumi whispered as he walked to a bar stool next to the sofa.
“One ply? Sha, that is a luxury. Why do you think I always collect newspapers here? Just put a bit of water for them to be soft and they are as good as three-ply tissues”.
They all busted out laughing and as if on cue, Tom approached them and sat on one of the stool and grinned at them.
“Gentlemen, maswera sei?”, he said sitting the bottle of Jack Daniels and four shot glasses on the table now stained with ashes and streaks of beer. My girl by The Temptations was now playing for the umpteenth time from the time the shebeen opened .It had just been released and Jacaranda FM was making sure everyone would know the lyrics by the time they went to bed.
“Mudhara Tom, how are you this evening?”, they chorused as Gumi turned his attention on the bottle of brown-goldish liquor calling his name. Tamuka excused himself and went to the restroom. Gumi had never been a fan of the cheap and uninspired brand of alcohol restricted for the blacks. His taste buds had savoured quality alcohol from the time he worked for Mr Walker, of no relation to John Walker, who sold diluted whiskey and spirits to “upper-class” black people. He was known all over Mufakose for his fine taste in quality alcohol and cigarettes, only because ninety percent of the time, he was the one who would have made them. He studied the colour of the liquor and could tell by the way the light from the bulb over them pierced through the bottle, it was diluted. He realised a diluted whiskey was better than the Chibuku that had cornered him to gain weight. He lit another cigarette and paid attention to Tom who was mid sentence talking to the other two gentlemen who he was certain where eager to have a shot too.
“… business has been good,terrific even.My father-in-law has agreed to help me open another shebeen at his house in the mean time”, Tom said as he stared at his wife Natsai who was behind the counter taking orders from drunk and semi drunk customers. Tunga saw him looking at his wife and instantly thought of Vongai. He had no idea why Tom suddenly took time to glance at his wife mid conversation, but he liked it and could not help but miss his. Tom saw Tunga looking at him and turned to him.
“She is beautiful,isn’t she?”,Tom said to Tunga who was now attempting to act as if he was not looking at him.
“Yes”, Tunga said nodding his head and taking a sip of his Chibuku, wishing it was whiskey.
“You know, it was love at first sight for me. I just knew she would be my wife the first time I saw her at her mother’s market”, Tom reminisced, Gumi and Tamuka, who had now joined them, reluctantly listened to him.
“She was not even paying attention to me, I was overseeing the men who were constructing my father’s bar and I would walk past her market countless times a day. ” he said chuckling to himself. The three men were a bit uncomfortable as to why he felt the need to confide in them. They had known him from the time he came to Mufakose six years ago, exchanging pleasantries and congregating around the small stereo when there was a soccer match. However, they had not been acquainted enough to borrow cigarettes or know if he had any siblings, but here he was, bearing his heart and telling them his love story.
“So, mudhara, how did you end up “conquering” the situation?”, Tamuka insinuated as he shuffled in his seat next to Tunga who realised his pun. All four of them knew where the conversation was headed. Tom reached for the bottle of whiskey and poured into the shot glasses. He gestured for the men to take one and they all toasted and gulped it down.
There was an awkward silence for a few seconds, Gumi complimented the fine and exquisite texture of the whiskey. And Tunga agreed with grunts and hand gestures. Anything to fill the loud silence was welcome, they knew Tamuka would not let it go though. He had been orphaned after his parents were burnt alive in their house after they declined the offer to sell their farm for a price less than a single cow. He ended up living with his grandmother in the reserves and had never seen white people as genuine and considerate people. He made it no secret that he had been hurt and he was not afraid to show it, he was not violent or menacing but he asked questions that would have people, both black and white, question themselves.
Tamuka sat there quietly but observant of the men around him. He turned his gaze to Tom who was also looking at him about to say something. He thought of interrupting him but he decided to let him proceed.
“I did not “conquer” nor did I threaten her. I was respectful of her space and I knew the danger she would face if she were to even talk to me. I watched her from a distance for nine months, and on Sundays on her way to church.”, Tom said shuffling himself on the three-legged stool.
Falling in love with Natsai was the only decision Tom was proud of after fathering three children, and he was privileged to have been loved back by her. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen when he first saw her seven years ago. She was twenty-one years old, ambitious, independent and fearless. Her parents were worried that she was getting a bit too old and no one would find her suitable or attractive if she did not get married soon. She had told them that marriage was not something she was worried about and what was important to her was her teaching career. As an only child, this did not go well with her parents, especially her mother who began holding prayer meetings nemadzimai eruwadzano, every Thursday to drive out the spirit that had possessed her daughter.
Tom had learnt of this when he was eavesdropping on the conversations the builders had during their break. One of them lived in the same neighbourhood as Natsai, he had tried to pursue her but alike the rest of the other men before him, he had found her intimidating and intolerant of juvenile pursuits. He had tricked his sister, Kathleen who was a senior teacher at the school Natsai was hoping to be employed, to hire female black teachers. He had convinced her by suggesting, by hiring a black teacher, the school would portray a more “diverse” spectrum and it would make her look good when the Pope and priests visited the school. He knew Kathleen was not keen on associating herself with kaffirs, but impressing the Catholic board was as important as entering heaven to her. He did not care using his sister’s racist nature against her, because now he would see Natsai up close, without her getting into trouble.
He stole glances every time he dropped by to see Kathleen, his tall frame, broad shoulders, blonde frizzy hair and blue eyes did not go unnoticed by the other ladies at the school. Hillary, Kathleen’s deputy had tried throwing herself onto him whenever she got the chance, but Tom would always come up with an excuse to avoid going out with her. He only agreed after learning that Natsai was being supervised by Hillary so they would always be together, and because of that, he agreed to meet up with Hillary at the school, only if there was someone for accountability. When Hillary pondered on who to ask, he readily suggested Natsai who technically had no choice because she had to follow Hillary everywhere. Hillary could not impose because she was twenty-four and desperate, and all the other female teachers envied her for being chosen by Tom.
Every weekday during Hillary’s break, Tom would come and they would all go to the sports field and sit on the terraces. Natsai would sit at a distance, but Tom would make sure to include her in the conversation and most of the times, he would talk to her more than Hillary. Natsai did not seem to be interested or pay much attention to him during their encounter. It was until one day, Hillary became annoyed when Natsai laughing at Tom’s joke that she reached out and slapped Natsai who was sitting a distance from them. Tom was baffled and angered by her action, he quickly ran to Natsai and held her face and felt the warmth of her streak of tear running down her smooth,black cheek. He gazed into her dark brown eyes which changed to a light brown when she faced the sun. Tom looked at her for a while and could not believe anyone could be more beautiful, Natsai pulled away from him and briskly walked towards the classes without turning back.
“Oh Tom, why do you care?!”, Hillary snapped at him as she descended from the terrace making her way towards him, tucking a few strands of brown locks behind her ear. “..these people get too comfortable and before you know it, they start asking you for money”. She said putting her arms around his neck and searching for his eyes as he looked down. She kisses him on his lips but he did not flinch, she tried using her tongue but Tom pushed her back and looked at her.
“That is no way to treat a human being! You should be ashamed of yourself, how can you think someone of less than you based on the colour of their skin?.”, Tom exclaimed as he moved away from her. Hillary was confused, she had not expected him to react that way. Why would she be ashamed of herself? She is not the one who was wrong, that woman should have known her place and kept quite. Why did she have to apologise? Hillary questioned herself as she looked at Tom running towards the classes. She began running after him and calling his name. Tom stopped and waited for her to catch up, he turned around and looked at her, she appeared more confused than remorseful.
“You had no right to hit her.”, he said shaking his head. “She did not deserve that, and a word to the wise Miss Kent, these people are as human as you are. They reason, they love and they hurt just like you!”, he said walking away from her and went to the staff room. The room was empty and he did not know where to find Natsai. He did not even attempt to ask as it would raise question and it would get her in trouble. Tom walked to his truck and drove away with anger and a broken heart, knowing he might never see Natsai again. It was not until a year later, he met her at another school across town where she was a Standard Three teacher and he was foreseeing the building of an additional block at the school. This time around, he made sure to be intentional and brave, and the rest is history.
Tom poured another round of whiskey after narrating his love story. Tamuka, Gumi and Tunga took time to digested the story trying to find the lesson or the take away from it. Tom took his shot and cleared his throat and looked at the three men who now looked tired.
“Tamuka, I might not have answered your question but I hope you see that for me, being with Natsai is more than any house they can give me. I saw a black woman who I fell hopelessly in love with and I could not have been happier.”, he grinned at Natsai who was clearing the counter ready to close up. “Akandipa three amazing children and she loves me dearly. Anondida chose and I am a blessed man. Love knows no colour and when you find it, never let it go. It is a once in a lifetime kind of thing. It is not easy but it is worth it.”, Tom stood up as he saw Natsai walking towards them to dismiss them.
“Imi varume imi, don’t you have wives to go home to? It is past 10pm and I am sure they are worried sick”, she said jokingly smiling at the three men who stood as she approached.
“Ah sisi Natsai, blame mudhara Tom ava. He is the one who kept us here for long.”, Tamuka said as he stretched himself and walking towards the door with Gumi and Tunga behind him. They all laughed as the walked out, bide their farewells and left Tom and Natsai in the shebeen.
They walked towards Chigubhu Road where they all resided separated by a few houses. They had been friends since primary school and had remained friends ever since. They walked in silence, each pondering on Tom’s story. Was he just telling them or where they to take something from it? Tamuka decided to break the silence.
“Ah but varume, what was the point of mudhara Tom’s story? Hee? Kutivhairira? Was it to show is that his wife loves him more than the other wives love their husbands?”, he said exasperated. He was still single and had vowed to marry until the country was free from Smith and his men. Which did not seem to be happening anytime soon.
“No kani, I think he was just sharing his experience. He is a man in love and is not afraid to show it. He makes me want to make it official with Shuvai but, Shuvai is a wild card. You know she wears trousers?! My mother will die if I bring her home”, Gumi said as he contemplated marrying the one woman who challenged him and drank as much as him.
“I think he was trying to say, love knows no colour. He married someone who was not deemed to be good enough by anyone or worth it by his own kind but he chose love. Moyo muti unomera paunoda shuwa. I guess he was trying to emphasize on loving whoever you want regardless of what people say.” Tunga gave his two cents as he tried to dissect Tom’s story.
“Ah, I hope he was not trying to mellow us into ignoring what his people are doing to us. I will not be tricked. Ah kana, no, I will not succumb to that.” Tamuka said as he walked towards his small one room wooden cottage. He bade his friend’s goodnight and disappeared into the room. Gumi and Tunga proceeded to their homes which were a few houses down.
“You know, I get what mudhara Tom was on about. He is not like the rest of them but shaa, that does not excuse how we are treated like dogs. Their dogs have better lives than we will ever have”, Gumi sneered and shook his head. It was hard to believe or hope for a better life. He imagined what bringing children would be setting them up for failure. There lives would be limited and agonising. Tunga shook his head but did not say anything, he agreed and understood his friend. He thought about how Vongai had tried to explain to him how raising a black child in Rhodesia was a permanent life sentence full of pain, poverty and condescension. He did not want anyone to suffer like that, and he did not want to partake in bringing in to the world an innocent soul to be castrated before they learnt who they were for themselves. He had to make peace with the possibility he might not father a child. He parted ways with Gumi and headed towards his house. A few houses still had their lamps on, he could hear a few voices of people who were putting out their cooking fires and others filling buckets and drums with water, ready for the next morning.
As he approached the house, he saw that the lamp was on. Usually Vongai would have never waited up for him because she always had to get up before 5 a.m. He paced towards the house worried Vongai had forgotten to turn the lamp off. As he got into the, he saw Vongai sitting on the sofa, with a large basket in front of her on their small coffee table. She sat stone-faced and was teary eyed staring at the basket.
“Ko,why are you seated by yourself this later?, Tunga inquired as he walked over to Vongai. He towered over both Vongai and the basket in their tiny living/dining room. Vongai looked at him but could not muster up the courage to say anything. She began to cry and covered her face with her hands. Tunga knelt beside his wife and embraced her whilst she sobbed.
“Tell me mudiwa,what is it? Was it that horrid senior nurse again?”, he tried to console his wife as he kissed her forehead. He did not want to rush her, so he held her and waited for her to compose herself. Vongai held her husband’s face and looked into his eyes. He saw fear in her eyes and the first thing that came to his mind was someone had died. He could not bring himself to ask her but Vongai looked at he basket and sighed.
“Tunga, I am sorry but I could not leave it. I just could not!”, she began sobbing again. “I know, I could have just left it there and kept walking, but I could not.” Tunga realised she had walked home from work again, but that did not explain the basket. He looked at the basket, it looked ordinary with a lid which had a knotted handle, but it was not familiar. He tried to think or guess what would make his wife that upset.
“Please, do not be angry. I know we will be in trouble but please, j-j…”, she began to cry again but this time pointing at the basket. Tunga stood up and looked at the basket and braced himself. Could she be playing with him? She had done that a couple of times before but this time around she looked serious. He composed himself and opened the basket. He gasped, not believing what he was seeing. He looked at his wife confused, trying to comprehend what was the meaning of what he was seeing. Where and how did she come across it? Did she steal it from the hospital? She knew better than to steal anything, that much he knew, but what was the meaning of this?
Tunga looked at Vongai who now stood beside him looking into the basket too. He could not believe she would do this, create more strife for them whilst they could barely survive their current ones. They both looked at each other, lost of words. Vongai still teary eyed and sniffling, Tunga confused and now afraid, and the basket with its content snug and peaceful.
“Woman, explain to me why there is a whole baby with blonde hair and white skin in that basket?” . Tunga said as he slumped himself on the seat Vongai previously sat, waiting for his wife to explain how she ended up with a white baby in the middle of Mufakose squatter camp in 1965.