Wednesday, February 24, 2016

and then dysentery struck

Mr Mpoga sees the python first. He beckons to me to follow.
I step over the long damp grass to the sodden pile of branches and dry leaves at the back of our house. "There. Can you see it?"
For a moment I can see nothing, just a grey and black log. Fattish, about the thickness of a man's arm. Then it moves, a lazy languid curling.
Mr Mpoga's assistants - he is a house painter - jump back, laughing.
I clutch my three-year-old daughter. She is goat-sized, I realise. Perfect python fodder.
It's not the first time I have seen snakes in our yard in Zimbabwe. Though we live in a built-up suburb, it is close to a lushly-forested mountain.
Mr M, the banker who lives further up the slope than us, had a cobra banging around in his attic not so long ago.
We ourselves had, one horribly memorable Christmas, a black mamba in the garden. It snaked itself into the frangipani tree where I believe it would have done no harm had stones not been thrown at it.
Our bouncing three-year old Rottweiler lunged at it as it lunged at her.
Twenty minutes. Ruby died in 20 minutes, despite my husband rushing her to the vet where she was put on a drip. She was bigger than my son at the time.
That's all I could think of, in my shock: how long would a child take to die? Black mamba bites are survivable, as long as you can get on life support.
But there is no life support machine in the clinics in Mutare, the provincial capital.
Sometimes I feel very far from England where I grew up. Where the most dangerous snake was a viper in nearby Bardney wood. Snakes are at their most active in Zimbabwe's hot muggy Christmas weather, where flies swirl and uncollected rubbish lies on the street corners.
Back to the python in the garden. Mr Mpoga thought it had eaten something. A sun squirrel perhaps: there are many in the flamboyant trees at this time. If it had, it would be sluggish, easy to catch.
When the snake twisted suddenly, I did a quick headcount of the cats - all present and accounted for -- and 'phoned the Snake Man.
Wiry and tough, Mr H arrived with his tousle-haired baby grandson and a large fork-like instrument.
The snake was trussed up in a sack in 10 minutes. I watched it for a few minutes, its body rippling through the canvas.
Maybe I can get a grip on this place after all, I thought hopefully. Surely after more than 10 years here, I should be able to.
And then dysentery struck.

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Sakubva, four o'clock.
The very best time of day. The worst of the heat is past. There's a slight breeze. You can finally breathe.
Down the street beyond the stalls and the sea of secondhand shoes that lie in front of them, the purple jacaranda trees sway.

I am looking for a bag for my 11-year-old son. A sports' bag, the sort he can fill with things for a weekend.
People brush past me. There are French fries for sale, wrapped in cellophane. Over there in a bucket, dried fish, startlingly yellow on one side.
I stop to consider some shorts in a soft khaki material. Nice quality. Probably too small for him though.
I come to the used clothes market here often enough for some vendors to know me by the name of my first child. They greet me now: Mai Given, Mai Brighton.
A woman swings her toddler off her back and stands next to me. The child stares at me, wide-eyed. I greet him in Shona. His mother smiles.
I hold up a green-patterned blouse against myself, wondering what other things in my wardrobe it will go with.
She does the same. We catch each other's eyes and laugh.
At the end of this line of market stalls, an elderly storeholder and his friend tuck into an afternoon snack: a cake and tea.
"Come, join us," he jokes. "Do you drink tea like this?"
"Of course."
There is something in his eyes that makes me think suddenly of my father, half a world away.
He urges me to look through his T-shirts, 2 US for the ones on coat-hangers, one if they're at ground-level, unfolded. I find a light brown T-shirt, hardly worn, for my son.
I pack it into my already-bulging bag and promise to come back soon.
I am a foreigner in Zimbabwe. I was not born here. I may never have the right to call this place home.
And often I am happy. Just to be here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

At the salon

"My husband was murdered," she says, reaching for a comb. And then I realise -.
Her surname. Of course. It was a big story three years ago. An appeal for a missing man. A few days with no news and then -- a body found in the boot of a car in Harare. Passersby noticed the car hadn't moved and alerted the police. He'd been hit over the head and then suffocated.
This kind of killing is extremely rare in Zimbabwe.
The murdered man was a businessman. State media said he was a gold dealer. His business associate was arrested for his murder.
"They thought he had money," the woman says. He did, in fact, according to first reports: 20,000 US was on the man when he was killed (it wasn't recovered).
Four daughters. One is still in school.
I had not thought a rare trip to the hairdressers' would bring all this back.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

She can make a dress in 30 minutes

"Did you find a good tailor?" I ask. The choir needed new outfits making up in record time. Thirty of them. They'd chosen the fabric. But each choir member wanted a slightly different style.
That didn't faze the tailor.
"We took the material to her on Thursday. She had no electricity all day so she couldn't start the sewing machine until Thursday night."
Zimbabwe's power woes aren't over. Some of the enterprising -- including teachers in the rural areas, so I hear -- work at night to take advantage of a few hours of electricity.
"She'd finished them by Friday morning. She just needs half an hour on each dress."

Thursday, November 5, 2015


"No I'm not coming to that meeting. The pastor might start casting out demons and then I'll fall on the floor and you'll all be watching."

Monday, October 26, 2015

Maid or no maid?

"She's not a maid," says one student.
"She is." Her classmate is equally emphatic. "Just look at her clothes."
"She's not."
I'm slightly surprised at the vehemence of this discussion on a sequence in the Zimbabwean short film The Secret Circle. In it, three women mix up the books they were reading after the domestic helper (is she a domestic helper? or a relative?) lets a saucepan of water boil over and everyone's forced to put their books down for a minute. I think - or I did before this discussion started -- that this is a story about secrets and infidelity and the things we don't tell each other.
Turns out it's also about social status, and how difficult it can be to work out who exactly is who.
Those who think the third woman (who is, everyone agrees, the lowest in the female hierarchy) is a maid base their argument on this: her clothes are shabby and the "big" sister says she brought her from the rural areas. Also - and this is key - she's left to mop up the spilt water by herself. If she was a valued close relative who'd hurt herself, would she be asked to do that?
But not everyone is convinced.
Don't the two sisters - the one with cancer, the one with the cheating husband - display more concern than they would for a domestic help, asks one student.
I'm fascinated and out of my depth.
I know what I think. But this is not my culture, nor my country. I did not grow up with domestic help.
So I listen and I learn.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Pants or no pants

These are today's purchases: one pink pair (Triumph), a khaki-coloured pair (white lace) and a pair of black shorts. Secondhand knickers, all of them. Bought from the market for 1 US a piece.
Former finance minister Tendai Biti once announced that as a man, if your wife was buying secondhand underwear "then you should know you had failed." He said this when announcing a (shortlived) ban on the sale of used underwear in the country.
I think about his words occasionally on one of my many forays to the market. I disagree. I've never expected my husband to buy my underwear for me, for one thing. And it's not as if the underwear on sale in Zimbabwe is affordable where it is of decent-ish quality. The only time I've bought new knickers here was when I was going into hospital and I knew I could throw them out after one wearing (which I did).
I wash my purchases out thoroughly before I wear them, of course. So, I imagine, does everyone else who buys them. I always find the bra stalls slightly off-putting, all those misshapen contraptions with straps tangled together like spaghetti. But I've dug deep in the piles and rifled along those bras stranded on hangers over the wooden rails and always found what I needed: Calvin Klein, Victoria's Secret.
I'm thinking about knickers again because of an unfortunate incident picked up Zimbabwe's state press yesterday. A 21-year-old model has appeared in court for modelling with no knickers. It happened in Harare in July. Apparently other photos were deleted (and possibly the other models also had no pants) but this model's pictures got circulated.
Secondhand knickers are better than no knickers, surely.