“I did not cradle my head or beat my breasts wailing, ‘Why? Why? Why you benighted earth, why are you never satisfied?’ I just stood for a few moments searching the deepest recesses of my being for a feeling. Sadness? Relief? Anger?”Tweet
Tafadzwa died the year he turned thirteen. It was 2009, and I should have accepted the inevitable. Ours is a country where death stalks children from the moment they take their first breath.
It was around midday on a pleasantly warm afternoon, the kind you get in Harare in late April. I was taking a long lunch with the three girls I worked with. We were sitting under an enormous avocado tree on the grounds of what used to be a scouts’ hall in Smith’s time. It was well off the main road with a long driveway so we could hear any car approaching. It was one of the reasons I liked working in that particular building. Our colleagues in the main office, a few kilometres away in a new office complex, always joked that they sometimes forgot about us, forgot to invite us to meetings and other company events because we were hidden away. We loved it. If anyone cared to pay us a visit, we could get back to our desks and compose ourselves long before they knocked on the outer door.
We had decided on an early lunch. None of us were in an industrious mood. We hadn’t been paid for several months, and there was no indication we would be anytime soon. The company had lost all its money when the government decided to dollarise the economy. We went home at the end of one day with the company thriving, with trillions of Zimbabwe dollars in the bank, but when we came to work the following morning, everything was gone. No one, it seemed, had been prepared for that. We sat together, distressed and despondent with impotent rage and disbelief, hoping that this was it, that this would be that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. We were sure people would rise up, go onto the street, and toyi-toyi until the government conceded they had made a mistake. We reminded each other of the countries where this sort of mass action — a show of people power, had brought change: The Bulldozer Revolution in Yugoslavia, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Chimurenga/Umvukela of our ancestors against the British.
We all must not have included ourselves in ‘the people’, for nothing happened. We continued to turn up for work, sometimes borrowing bus fares, other times walking in. The company directors had to apply for some American dollars against their accounts; everyone had to. A few hundred American dollars for businesses and organisations, five dollars for individuals, regardless of how much was previously in the account. Those were the rules.
I had woken up that morning with a familiar feeling of unease that I couldn’t shake off. I was sure other people woke up with the same disquiet that came with the realisation that things were falling apart, that it would take another Chimurenga to resolve things. I felt a little expectant, a vague sense of waiting for something, a seething impatience. I wanted something to happen and yet was aware that I needed to be part of it. I wanted to wake up to the news that the police had realised they were civil servants and were going to uphold the rule of law, stop brutalising people. Every day, I yearned for the hospitals to reopen, for the banks to compensate people for all the money they had lost. I prayed for the day the elderly wouldn’t need to walk for hours expecting to receive food aid only to be told that they supported the wrong party and wouldn’t be getting anything. I wanted all these things and much more.
Somedays I woke up happy – blissful even. I would listen to the birds and the street noises for a while. Then it would creep back on me, and I would remember. With a sinking feeling, I would remember I lived in a country where my main aims for the day were not to have any dealings with the police or soldiers, to stay out of the way of Green Bombers, to space out my meals, so I only ate when necessary, and above all, not to fall ill or injure myself.
On this particular morning, I’d woken up acutely aware that there was nothing to be blissful about, that although the birds were still singing beautifully and the streets were fittingly lively, nothing had changed, things were most certainly worse. The minister for transport had announced a fuel price hike the previous night and the official rate of annual inflation, at more than a hundred thousand per cent, was reported to be the highest in the world.
I went about my morning ablutions with more lethargy than usual – filling a bucket and sitting on the edges of the bath and playing with the water until I could feel the skin on my palms wrinkling. I put on the same pair of jeans I’d worn the previous day, and perhaps the day before, and threw on a t-shirt that wasn’t mine. Such was my torpor that, at work, I only managed thirty minutes of work in total. Not even the prospect of going without a salary for another month could shake me out of this disquietude.
At lunchtime, I sat under the avocado tree nibbling a tasteless sandwich, listening to the girls chattering. Their voices fluctuated, sometimes dropping to whispers, other times bursting out in exclamations. I let the fragments of their chatter soothe me, like a lullaby. I was letting the breeze wash over my face and would probably let the afternoon go to waste as well.
‘I told him I was leaving him. Do you know what he said?’
‘Go on, did he beg? Did he promise you the world?’
‘Did he say he was going to break your leg?’
‘No, I was holding a knobkerrie, and I told him I was going to break his head if he came near me. He said he’d tell my mother.’
The other two gasped.
‘Ah! A full-grown man!’
‘I know! Mashura chaiwo, telling on you to your mother.’
‘What does he think your mother will say?’
‘Hee hee de, huuri,’ they laughed chikwee, that sound women make when they are happy and carefree. It was a high-pitched sound that pierced the tranquil air of the lazy afternoon. They ended their chikwee by high-fiving each other.
Then my phone rang— a sound as shrill and vulgar as the girls’ laughter. It was a woman on the other end, an in-law with whom I shared some responsibility for our nephew. Because she was married to my sister’s husband’s younger brother, she wasn’t sure how to address me. My sister had been maiguru, ‘big mother,’ what you call the woman married to your husband’s older brother. I was supposed to be mainini ‘small mother.’ She couldn’t call me that or by my first name because I was older than her, so she ended up calling me mhai, ‘mother,’ somewhat timidly.
‘Hallo,’ I said slowly.
‘Hallo, hallo, mhai.’ I detected her Manyika twang when she said ‘aenda Tafadzwa’ in a breathy, breaking voice. For an instant, I allowed myself to believe that we had, together, planned or arranged for Tafadzwa to go somewhere, like the doctor’s or maybe to visit a different relative for a few days, to give her some respite. She had to wash all the bedding every morning and give him a full bath, despite the water shortages. My contribution was to bring her some water. Prolonged drought, lack of chemicals, and general incompetence of the local authority meant that some townships went without water for days. I would fill every available container, from one-litre capacity upwards, and pack them in the boot of my car.
She prepared his meals, made sure he took his medication. She never complained. Her two children— a smiley girl, and a football-crazed ten-year-old boy, had accepted their secondary status with good grace and patience that belied their ages. They didn’t complain either, even when their mother reserved all the tasty morsels for their ailing cousin. They understood.
Because of all these sacrifices, I thought we had made a different arrangement for him, which I had somehow forgotten about. Then it sank in. Tafadzwa was dead. At thirteen, his disease-ravaged body had given up the fight.
I did not cradle my head or beat my breasts wailing, ‘Why? Why? Why you benighted earth, why are you never satisfied?’ I just stood for a few moments searching the deepest recesses of my being for a feeling. Sadness? Relief? Anger? I put the phone back in my pocket and sat down.
There was very little of him left in the end. He had always been small. At thirteen, he was no bigger than he had been at five. Near the end, he could not hold down any food or drink, but his eyes remained alert. He could speak, and he did so with the gruffness and wisdom of an old man, deliberately and slowly as if he was pondering every word. He would sit in an armchair, propped up by pillows, and wrapped in a blanket, flicking through the pages of a leather-bound bible with a bony finger. ‘The First Book of Samuel’ he would tell me. It was always, ‘The First Book of Samuel.’ I would sit next to him, listening to his shaky voice reciting the verses, with tears falling unbidden down my cheeks. The last time I had seen him, he had rebuked me. ‘Don’t cry, mhai,’ he’d said, ‘we all have to leave this world sometime.’
When I realised I hadn’t collapsed after I calmly said ‘zvakanaka, ndiri munzira,’ assuring the woman on the other end of the phone that I was on my way, I knew my moment had come.
‘My son just died,’ I said in answer to the searching looks of my colleagues.
They stared back with creased brows and open mouths, perhaps, because of my dry eyes. ‘My sister’s son, actually, my nephew’, I added, hoping to smooth the creases. When they continued to stare, it came to me. I had become one of those mothers whose tears just dry up, causing other people to be heartbroken and confused.
As a child, I’d often wondered at some bereaved mothers, grandmothers, aunties, sisters and daughters who sat wrapped in black shawls and scarves, their faces trained ahead, avoiding meeting the eyes of the wailing heartbroken. As I grew older and attended more funerals, I came to understand that the wailing heartbroken were rendered so by the bereaved’s dry eyes than by the passing of a young life. Their tears were a desperate prayer that when it was their turn, as it soon would surely be, to sit on a reed mat, black scarved and shawled, surrounded the wailing heartbroken, that they would have something left inside to cry about, that if they had got to the dried- eyed and stony-faced stage, they would carry it with the same dignity and resolve. They, for the time being, were allowing themselves to wail and holler and throw themselves on the ground while they could.
I saw it in my mother when I was eight. One morning, I had watched her, an aunt and another woman walk back in silence in single file from a river where they had just buried the thing. My mother was carrying a hoe on her shoulder. I don’t know if it had formed into a child yet. They had buried it on the banks of a stream, where stillborn or prematurely born babies are buried, to cool their spirits. My cousin was lying on a mattress in the spare bedroom which we had given up in the weeks she’d come to await the deed. We had orders to leave her alone. She was twelve. Did she weep for her baby? I don’t know. All I know is a few days letter I came back from school to find her gone. Her mother wanted her back in school before people started talking.
I wished then that when my time came, I would be the other type of dry-eyed woman, the frenetic dry-eyed variety. These are women who upon receiving bad news or witnessing a personal tragedy, get really frantic about doing the things that needed doing — cleaning, cooking, calling other relatives to inform them of the news in a very sombre but controlled voice, picking all the ripe mangoes off the tree in case they fall to the ground and attract flies, anything and everything that has ever needed doing other than crying. I turned out to be both the frenetic dry-eyed variety and the sit-still, stare-ahead, stony-faced type.
Things happened in a blur after the phone call. I went to the police station to collect the police officer; they didn’t have fuel to attend to the death. I drove him back to the station later and then went to buy a coffin at Mbare Musika— one of those they make while you wait. We couldn’t move his body without a coffin. I was sure the police commissioner made a cut from the coffin makers because I thought that this was a ridiculous regulation in a country where many people can’t rub two coins together. I ferried the body to the hospital. Then I arranged the transport from Harare to the rural home so he could be laid to rest next to his father. Most of this was later recounted to me by relatives. They told me I had an argument with a woman I didn’t know over her husband choosing to eat his lunch in the car rather than by the fire with everyone else. He was shy, they told me. I have a vague memory of glaring angrily at the woman and hissing at the husband. ‘We thought you were going to throw the plate of sadza in his face,’ a relative told me. I also remember the Catholic hymn mourners were singing ceaselessly on the day of the burial. ‘Amai Maria, mwana wenyu uyu, kana mobvunzwa moti ainamata’ (Mother Mary, here welcome your child, when God asks tell him Tafadzwa was prayerful). I was sure Amai Maria wasn’t the rightful intercessor. And, it wasn’t fair of God to expect an explanation or apology from a child who had only known pain ─ the pain of losing both parents and then living with the realisation that he was going to die young.
Tafadzwa’s death was the last straw. I resolved that until a time when the government could be called to account for destroying the health system and for keeping all the ARVs for themselves and their families and selling the rest, at exorbitant prices, there was no use in mourning.
While we wailed and beat our breasts, funerals continued to happen with frightening regularity, there was still no food in the shops, you couldn’t be guaranteed that your home would still be your home the next day, and Tafadzwa was gone. Unless a miracle of biblical proportions happened, we were still going to hear how the police beat up people at the fruit and vegetable markets and seized all their wares as evidence. There was no doubt fearful whispers of how the Green Bombers forced strangers to have sex in pubs, just for the heck of it would continue to be exchanged across the country. There was also still going to be stories of young girls contracting HIV from being molested by their fathers or their uncles. Tafadzwa’s death showed me that the future needed a different strategy.
I was going to walk up to people – at funerals, at courthouses, at roadside accident sites, at hospital bedsides and at other occasions where tears were expected – just walk up to them, look them in the eye, offer my condolences or commiserations as appropriate, and then walk off again, with my head held high. They accused women who did that of being witches. I wasn’t going to let that sway me. A better future depended on us staying heartbroken and enraged not on hopeless lamentation.
Ethel Maqeda is a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MA Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies including, Palm-Sized Press, Volume 3, The Selkie, The Same Havoc, and Boiler House, Wretched Strangers. Her collection of short stories, Mushrooms for my Mother made the longlist of the 2020 S1 Leeds Literary Prize. Ethel has worked in an FE college since 2007 and makes time to write in her spare time between learning to dance and watching plays.