Onai Moyo awakened unwillingly from her slumber to the irritatingsound of a dog barking continuously in the distance. The racket escalated to an agitated pitch that seemed to grow closer as it grew louder. More dogs in the neighbourhood joined in: barking, yelping and growling. The noise was raucous and broke the stillness of night. Onai felt a spasm of apprehension. This sort of commotion often meant that gangs of matsotsi eHarare were out prowling through the ramshackle labyrinth of Jo’burg Lines where she lived with her family.
Her right arm felt like a dead-weight beneath her despite a spasm of sharp pins and needles. She turned over with drowsy indolence and wiggled her fingers to ease her discomfort. Circulation returned in a rush and for a moment the prickling sensation intensified. She opened her eyes. Thin shafts of orange light from the tower light filtered effortlessly through the leaves of the mango tree just outside her window and through the frayed curtain of her bedroom, throwing peculiar shapes on the wall that seemed to cavort in a synchronised manner. Mimvuri, happy shadows … she thought sleepily, closing her eyes in an attempt to go back to sleep. She failed.
As she became more alert, she thought again with a sinking feeling that her husband had not yet come home. The absence of loud snores and a pleasant freedom from the stench of alcohol-infused breath told their own story. But still she strained her sleep-heavy eyes in the gloom and reached a tentative arm across the bed. She made contact with nothing, which confirmed her anxiety. Where was he?
At that moment, the rickety metal gate standing a few metres from her bedroom window creaked in a characteristic manner. So he’s finally back, she thought with irritation as she fumbled for her wristwatch on the battered cardboard box next to her bed. The upside-down container had staunchly served as her dressing table for almost a year, weathering bedroom conflicts by her side. As she peered at her watch and struggled to make out the time, she heard muted voices and the 1 padding of stealthy footsteps. Tossing her threadbare blanket aside, she stood up.
Cautiously, she drew the curtain sideways a fraction, and out of the corner of her eye caught a flurry of movement. Two figures crept past the mango tree and disappeared into the shadows towards the kitchen door. So, tonight, they were the burglars’ chosen ones! Her heart knocked painfully against her rib cage. The sound transmitted itself to her ears in a subdued, pulsing beat.
‘God help me please,’ she offered a heartfelt prayer. She knew how daring burglars ordered people to remain quietly in bed while they ransacked their homes. With the new breed of malicious intruders, assault was no longer a remote possibility. She was certain, moreover, that her loudest screams would not coerce her neighbours out of the safety and comfort of their homes. Nobody in their right mind would risk their lives by coming to her aid. Not at this time of night. So, apart from her children, she was well and truly alone.
She swore under her breath at her absent husband. ‘Uripiko nhai Gari? Where are you Gari?’ Her mind sharp with fear, she realised that she had just a few minutes to spirit her children to relative safety. She moved silently and instinctively through the darkness into her daughters’ bedroom. Sixteen-year-old Ruva and fifteen-year-old Rita were both awake, which was a relief, though not surprising given the clamour that the dogs were still making. She half-dragged them out of bed and shoved them into her bedroom. Ignoring their surprised questions, she hissed at them to be quiet. Exchanging confused glances, they obeyed. She then tiptoed into her son’s tiny bedroom next to the kitchen. Amazingly, ten-year-old Fari was fast asleep. She placed her hand over his mouth and gently woke him up. Clearly startled by this intrusion, he struggled and hit out before he heard her reassuring whispers. Mother and son moved quickly into the main bedroom.
The family huddled in a tense, quivering group in the corner of their sanctuary. Profound fear hung over them as they listened to the muffled sounds and imagined their home being desecrated. Rita, the neediest of Onai’s children, leaned closer towards her and sought out her hand with a trembling, clammy palm. Onai took the shaky hand in a firm grip and drew the terrified girl closer.
She closed her eyes and thought about their black and white television, by far their most prized possession. It stood with imposing presence on a wrought-iron stand, easily dominating their poky sitting room. Without seeing it, she knew that it had gone. ‘Maybe it will be the only thing they get away with because it’s so heavy,’ she dared to hope. She wondered if the burglars had knives. Or a gun. The idea made her shudder. She circled her arms around Rita and drew some comfort from the softness and warmth of the young girl’s body. Again she swore at her husband for leaving them so defenceless.
After what felt like the longest ten minutes of Onai’s life, the faint noises quietened down and the back door closed with a barely perceptible click. Next, the gate creaked and sighed. A flood of relief washed over her and the tension in her body slackened. The intruders had left. Rising from her crouching position, she groped for the light switch and pulled hard on the string. The sudden brightness was almost like a physical blow. Fari looked dazed. Rita was shaking violently. Ruva’s mutinous face showed a fiery but impotent anger. Onai felt a moment of self-reproach. She could not protect her children from the life they were destined to live.
As if on cue, the family moved silently and resolutely into the sitting room. Their television which had withstood the ravages of time had gone. Sekutamba chaiko. Just like that. Rita and Fari perched on the edge of the old armchair, wordless still. The silent disappointment on their faces only added to Onai’s sense of despondency. Of course, she would never be able to replace the set. Not in a lifetime. Without doubt, they would miss their weekly highlight, the Nigerian Movies of the Week which provided an intriguing concoction of Christianity and witchcraft. Nor would their evenings be the same without the suspense of a Studio 263 episode. Thankfully, their black Supersonic stereo still stood on a woven reed mat in the corner. She lifted it off the floor and placed it carefully on the wrought-iron stand. ‘Pabva gondo pagara zizi,’ she mused, somewhat inappropriately, then dismissed the thought. For that elevated position, the stereo was surely a poor replacement.
For a room that had just been burgled, everything else looked startlingly normal. Not that there was anything else that would have stirred the burglars’ interest. The noticeably small room was further dwarfed by four shabby blue armchairs, well past their prime. The wobbly wooden table stood where it had always stood, right at the centre of the room, looking as lopsided as ever.
Onai’s eyes moved up the blue, streaked wall. Her two picture frames, embellished in gaudy imitation gold, still hung on either side of the cheerfully corpulent Humpty Dumpty clock. ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall …’ her thoughts wandered, seeking escape and remembering of all things, Fari’s favourite rhyme. She stopped herself irritably. The clock appeared to be smiling at her, eyes twinkling, features seemingly alight with joy. She removed her gaze from the illusion of its happiness.
Ruva whirled round to glare at her. ‘Amai, where is baba? Look at the time. It’s three o’clock, Amai! He should have been here to protect us. Why isn’t he here?’ she railed, her soft adolescent features contorted by resentful anger.
Onai looked at her and flinched from the intensity of her rage. ‘Mwanangu, just like you, I don’t know where he is. We’re safe now. Let’s go back to sleep, vanangu,’ she said in a mother’s calm, gentle voice. Inside, she was seething. For a moment, she felt an irresistible urge to slap her daughter really hard, but with no small effort she suppressed it. She thought of uttering some belittling remarks about Gari, but again she restrained herself. She would never admit openly to her children that their father was a blatantly irresponsible man. What purpose would it serve, except to further erode the flimsy fabric of Gari’s relationship with his children?
Tactfully, she ignored the increasingly familiar look of condemnation on Ruva’s face and shepherded her offspring back to bed. She checked the lock on the back kitchen door and was dismayed to find it badly broken. Getting it fixed would cost no less than five hundred thousand dollars. Veduwe, nhamo haibvi pane imwe chokwadi … poverty bred even greater poverty. There wasn’t much more that the pittance she grossed as a vegetable vendor could accommodate.
Resignedly, she tried to hold the broken lock together with a piece of thick wire. It did not work. She tried harder. The wire dug into the roughened skin of her palms. Finally, she managed to hold the door at a slightly crooked slant. The twisted wire offered no protection. She shut her eyes tightly and drew in a slow, deep breath, bravely willing herself free of another cloud of misery which was threatening to suffocate her.
About the Author
Valerie Joan Tagwira graduated from the University of Zimbabwe’s Medical School in 1997. She studied and worked as a gynecologist in the UK before she returned to teach and work at Harare Hospital. Valerie has a strong interest in health-related and developmental issues that affect women. The Uncertainty of Hope is her first novel. It one a NAMA Award in 2007 and was short-listed for the Aidoo-Snyder prize in the USA. She says ‘It began as an exploration in creativity, something that one doesn’t practise in the medical field. Then, it became an opportunity for me to explore issues close to my heart … the challenges that women face in their day-to-day lives, and the obstacles that they encounter in trying to make life better for their families.’Post published in: Arts