Excerpt from Zebra Crossing by Meg Vandermerwe (Oneworld - April 2014)
Four in the afternoon. George should be in the main house, squeezing a jug of mango juice or what-not for our mistress. She will be where she is every afternoon after another beauty treatment at Mrs Mabeeni’s parlour – in the sitting room, curled up on the leather sofa like a pampered pet, watching satellite television or flicking through Cosmopolitan magazine while eating Choice Assorted Biscuits. But instead he has come to see me in the outside courtyard, where I am wringing out the mop.
He knocks a cigarette from its pack and slips it between his lips. His face is sour. So, a dark mood. Another row with Mai Mavis, the cook? I know better than to ask. Must wait. Wait patiently until he decides to tell me. My brother sucks in, and then blows out.
‘This time she has gone too far …’
I notice his hand is trembling.
‘I won’t protect her. I will confess to everything.’
Confess? He pulls on his cigarette. A cloud of smoke.
‘I mean, did I not do only as she told me to? Should I now be punished for that bitch’s stupidity?’
I listen. Little sister. It is my job to listen. When I am not scrubbing, or sweeping. But most of all it is my job to obey. If I do not obey, how should he protect me?
The General’s third wife is young enough to be his daughter. She and the General have been married for one year, ever since Mr General divorced Wife Number 2, and promoted this wife from being his ‘small house’ – his mistress. Wife Number 3 has it all – youth, beauty and an education, but it is true that, since their marriage, the General’s attentions have once again begun to wander. There is gossip among the servants. He is courting the flirtatious Miss Patience. He is interested in Miss Hazel, a woman with round, jiggling breasts and questionable morality.
But now, new developments, my brother says. So perturbed is he that he can hardly articulate his words. Wife Number 3 has been caught red-handed in another man’s bed. George swallows. She is in serious shit with the General.
‘Before the day is through, he will interview all of us. He is certain she could not have managed it without servants’ help. We will be interrogated, then dismissed.’
My brother drops his cigarette stub and, his hand shaking, immediately lights another. Then he begins to pace. I know he colluded with our mistress. All the servants did. George often complained they had no choice. They wanted to keep their jobs. But what now? Hayiwa? George looks desperate. The General is a rich and influential man in Beitbridge. He will see to it that my brother cannot find another job.
‘And to make matters only worse,’ George says gesturing to me, as though to a blocked toilet or some other annoyance, ‘you know how they feel about peeled potatoes like yourself …’
Peeled potato. That is what many in Zimbabwe call me. Also ‘monkey’ and ‘sope’. But now I know there are other names too depending where you go. Name rhymes with shame. In Malawi, they call us ‘biri’. They whisper that we are linked to witchcraft. In Tanzania, we are ‘animal’ or ‘ghost’ or ‘white medicine’. Their witch doctors will pay handsomely for our limbs. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they call us ‘ndundu’ – living dead. If a fisherman goes missing, they call on us to find the body. In Lesotho, we are ‘leshane’, meaning half-persons, whereas to South Africans, depending on whether they are Xhosa or coloured, we are ‘inkawu’, meaning ape, ‘wit kaffir’, ‘spierwit’ or ‘wit Boer’. Meanwhile my brother calls me ‘Tortoise’. That is because we sopes have poor eyesight when the light is bright, and so at times I must perform a task slowly. Sometimes, though, I am Little Sister. All the whites in these places simply call people like myself ‘albino’. I also have a real name, though. My name is Chipo. In Shona it means ‘gift’. When my mother gave it to me, I wonder, did she have a premonition about her daughter’s destiny?
‘Oh, to hell with them all,’ George says finally. His mood has changed. Storm clouds are brewing in his head. He drops the stub of his second cigarette and twists it under his shoe.
‘Put away that mop and gather your things. We’re going home early, Tortoise.’
* * *
‘In South Africa there are plenty of jobs. We won’t have to crawl on our hands and knees to earn a pittance. And they have proper hospitals and shops crammed with cool goods like flatscreen TVs, and all the roads are clean, paved – not these bloody moon craters. That is because in South Africa …’
On the opposite pavement a woman is selling delicious, caramel-smelling roasted sweet potatoes. A few years ago those potatoes would have sold in moments. But money is tight for everyone these days, and what was once a small treat has become an unaffordable luxury for most. I watch her poke at them with a fork as George repeats the same promises about life over the border that he has been reciting to me daily since Mama passed away three years ago. I say nothing. My stomach grumbles from hunger and I pull my umbrella lower. My spectacles have steamed up. It is too hot even to think. A stray dog trots past, one of those location specials, a little bit of every breed. Its tan-coloured ears and tail are pointing upwards, its red tongue is hanging out, and its ribcage makes me think of prison bars. Sometimes these strays are hit by cars. Then their carcasses are left to rot at the roadside. Food for the rats.
I think of the General. Big cats like the General always catch rats like George and me. What will happen? George had to lie and tell the General that we have been called home because our mother is sick – so, an emergency. Otherwise we would not have gotten permission to leave.
‘Bastard. Doesn’t even remember we are orphans.’
We had to leave our week’s wages as proof we would return for our interrogation about the Mistress’s lover. George spits. So now we are without a week’s wages. And without jobs. What will tomorrow bring? Had George even thought of that?
If you had passed us in the street that afternoon, could you have known that once we both attended school, like the General’s own teenage children, and had dreams and ambitions of our own? George wanted to start his own business. I secretly hoped to one day, somehow, qualify as a social worker or district nurse. What is more, our mother, when she was still alive, owned a brick house, which, although much smaller than the General’s imposing home, had two bedrooms and an indoor bathroom with a flushing toilet. From that house our mother operated a lucrative drinking tavern called ‘Old Trafford’, named after her beloved Manchester United’s home ground. There, surrounded by posters of David Beckham and Dwight Yorke, she served mazondo, boiled hooves and hard-boiled eggs as well as a potent homebrewed beer, called Seven Days, which caused her patrons to return faithfully, time and time again.
A minibus taxi speeds past, its sides smeared with red dust, like chilli powder. Too full for us? Or maybe it is me they do not want to stop for. Two men pass. Too close. I can feel them staring. I look at the ground. My feet in my cheap zhing-zhong flip-flops from the Chinaman shop are red from the dust, too. I must give my toes a good scrub tonight. Not that it matters. We can’t keep the dust out of our house, though the place is never filthy – I make sure of that.
In 2003 the government declared informal drinking taverns like Mama’s illegal. Operation ‘Remove Moral Filth’, they called it. They encourage Zimbabweans to be sinful. That is what the government radios and newspapers shouted. All informal drinking taverns must be demolished. Informal street markets too. If you don’t do it, the police told us, then we will.
‘What are you waiting for? Bring your hammers.’ Mama said, standing in front of Old Trafford. Her skin quivered with rage. Maybe she was feeling very brave, or maybe she didn’t believe they would dare to deliver on their bold promises. Either way, I think that if she could have killed that corrupt policeman at that moment, she would have.
The head policeman had smiled and walked away. Some say he had seen Mama at the rallies supporting the opposition party. That is why she and Old Trafford in particular were targeted. Whatever the reason, one month later to the day we were woken by the rumble of their trucks.
Will we soon be in a truck? I wonder to myself. Jumping the border? Every day, they say, hundreds are doing it. That is what the radio and newspapers tell us. And then what? That truck will carry us from here to …? I look up in the direction of the border, over and beyond. From here, to …? I cannot imagine what it looks like, in spite of George’s stories. What does it look like? Johannesburg. Cape Town. They don’t sound or rhyme like anything. Just names. I rub my eyes. They are burning from the heat and the dust. My umbrella is not helping much.
It is true that even before the demolition there were times when Mama admitted, ‘I am not hungry, Chipo’, or ‘Yo, I feel so so tired! The tavern is wearing me out!’ But there is no denying that, after it was destroyed, within eighteen months, her health took a turn for the worse and so did our fortunes.
‘Tortoise! Pay attention!” My brother sucks his teeth, irritated. ‘Deaf as well as blind.’
I push up my glasses and lift my umbrella to squint at him.
‘I said you better cook sadza for one extra tonight and buy a bottle of chibuku. I am going to invite Michael to join us. I need his advice about crossing the border.’
Michael is a distant relation of ours, and George’s best friend. They have been best friends since primary school days. Michael is a car mechanic who often boasts to my brother that he can repair a Toyota Land Cruiser with parts from a tractor. ‘No one would even notice,’ he says. When he was a boy, Michael and his father used to water down bottles of petrol with cooking oil and sell them at the roadside. They did this for three months before they were caught.
Michael works for a garage next to Mr General’s taxi shop. It caters to the many trucks and minibuses passing back and forth, transporting people and goods between Zimbabwe and South Africa. He and George love car talk. But they can also debate for hours about Manchester United – which players are decent, worthy of wearing the red shirt, and who are ‘buckets of shit’. Michael, I know, has no desire to go and try his luck in South Africa. He is content where he is. But his cousins, David and Peter, are already there.
David and Peter. Peter and David. Twins, though not identical. Peter can sing. David cannot. Peter likes Coke. David, Fanta Orange. I remember the first time I saw them at school. I was only six. And I can see them both standing in our yard waiting for George to finish his chores so he could play soccer. Once, Peter called me ugly and David beat him. Then, in 1997, the Zim dollar crashed for the first time, their father lost his job and they moved to Harare.
Another minibus is approaching. George sticks out his hand and it slows to a stop. The hwindi pulls back the sliding door.
‘The General has done us a favour … You will see … We are going just in time. Next year the whole world will want to be in South Africa … The World Cup – that is the what. First time it is being played on African soil.’
The other passengers’ eyes narrow and I choose a seat on my own, next to the window. My brother slumps down next to me and leans back against the torn seat cover. Soon the minibus is bumping over the potholed road. My buttocks will be black and blue long before we reach our shack in Luthumba, I think, as George gives me a rare smile.
‘I’ve heard that David Beckham will be there. Imagine that. I will definitely secure his autograph.’
An old man in a front seat wipes the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. Another picks his nose.
‘But not you, Tortoise. If he sees you, he would get such a fright he might run away.’ My brother laughs and I can feel the other passengers staring again, so I say nothing. Only think. Only remember.
* * *
Mama always said she was Zimbabwe’s most loyal Manchester United supporter – like her father and uncles before her. We never knew Mama’s father. He died before we were born. But, like her father, Mama said, she too believed that United could do no wrong. When David Beckham transferred to Real Madrid in 2003, she saw it as a betrayal and took down all the posters of him wearing his red shirt that, until then, had kept watch over our mattress as we slept. Then she mourned.
Some facts and statistics about Manchester United that Mama taught us:
• Manchester United first won the European Cup in 1968.
• By 2003, they had won the FA Premier League eight times.
• Sir Alex Ferguson is their manager. He was knighted by the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. Afterwards, he ate cucumber sandwiches and drank tea in the Palace rose gardens. Mama showed us the photos that she cut out and saved from the Zimbabwe Herald.
• David Beckham wore the number ten jersey. Before that he wore number twenty-four. Now Wayne Rooney wears number ten.
• They are the best team in England, hands down.
• My brother was named after George Best. Number one Manchester United player until David Beckham came along.
‘Whatever you do, never confuse Manchester United with Manchester City, my children,’ Mama would say. ‘That is like confusing a thoroughbred horse with a village donkey. Understand?’
Manchester United rhymes with ‘we’re never tired’. Mama said their players are young lions. They play and play until their opponents drop with exhaustion.
Before, when there was still the occasional English Premiership game aired on Zimbabwean public television, thanks to corporate sponsorship and what-what, she would close the tavern early and hurry next door to sit herself down in front of our black and white television, which had pride of place on a small table in the living room. Together, the three of us would watch as Beckham worked his magic on the pitch.
‘What a pass! There is nothing that this blessed white boy cannot do. Go! Run! Run!’ Sometimes Mama would get so excited she would spill her mug of tea.
‘Mama, they cannot hear you, you know. They are very far away.’
‘Shhh, George. Now look at this mess. Chipo, fetch a rag, please, quick-quick. How do you know what they can and cannot hear, hey? He can feel that I am on his side, praying for him to thrash this manure Chelsea team.’
The minibus’s windows are rattling. A young woman with a baby on her lap is snoring. But this is September 2009, Chipo, I tell my reflection. Mama has been dead for almost three years, and only those like the General, who can afford satellite television, are able these days to keep abreast of the latest overseas soccer matches. And as for David Beckham – I look at myself – he certainly gives no thought to someone like you. George is right. If you are ever to have a chance of achieving a better life you must be brave. Besides, you are not wanted here, Chipo. Who will even care that you are going? No one. I mouth the words to the sope girl looking back at me: no one.