Three kinds of suffering

BY RUTENDO PARADZAI ANNE Anne hangs around a church-based charity in a small town in the Midlands. One of the trustees, a kindly man, felt that her paranoia might suit her to the job of keeping an eye on the place. She reads a lot but had just tried Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing (published ci

rca 1947.) Suffice to say that she had found it wanting and the degree of wanting seemed related to the number of times she said, “Sis man!” Her righteously indignant voice echoed across the decades from my Southern Rhodesian childhood. And smashed any lingering teenage notions that ‘poor whites’ as they were then called were lucky people who were allowed to hang around the shops smoking! Over the years these kings and queens of the road drifted off to the great white paradise in the South. They were drawn to the inflated salaries that job reservation offered, courtesy of the Nationalists who had come to power in South Africa in 1948. Somehow Anne was left behind. Her paranoia seems to preserve an undigested 1950’s racism that denies her the companionship of the other street people with whom she lives, all of whom are black. “I’m stuck here,” she said sadly, “You can leave. You can get a job. I’ll never get a job. I have to stay here and I HATE it.” She said the word with such venom that I felt sorry for her. It must be hell to be stuck in that kind of prison while the world has moved on and thrown away the key to your cell. She leaned forward and indicated with her eyes the nearest one of ‘them’ and said in her conspiracy theory voice, “I’ll just have to stay here with them.” Her voice was pregnant with the menace of it all and her taunt, hunched body was cloaked with distrust. THEM The same morning I watched a food aid programme in operation. Only the chronically ill are permitted by the government to receive any help. A young woman with both femurs broken and still on one crutch carried 20kgs of roller meal on her head, her baby on her back, a heavy food parcel in one hand and her bag in the other. She clapped her thanks as each basic foodstuff was added to her sack. She said ‘may God bless you’ when she left. There are no luxuries in these parcels, no sugar, tea or flour. One older woman wept as she told of how she struggles to support seven grandchildren including an eleven-year-old granddaughter who is HIV positive: She’s a vendor and has to vend in secret after tsunami’. Chipo had a beautiful face but some horrific and chronic infection on her leg. Her husband abandoned her and the seven children with whom she lives in the grass by ‘Islamic Church.’ She’s also a victim of tsunami. A young widow of 34 was HIV positive and had a sore back from carting concrete by wheelbarrow at her son’s school to pay off a year of fee arrears. She wanted to get on an ARV programme and when offered female condoms she replied, “Ah no! I don’t want to get into sex no more!” How sad to have to feel that way so young. But the saddest were a seventeen-year-old orphan with her youngest sibling strapped on her back. She’s a squatter and was painfully thin and neglected. I thought at first that she was stoned or mentally retarded, and she may have been. Or did her eyes seem dead, as if they’d seen too much? And there was a frantic three-year-old who was in charge of a mother who seemed numb with hopelessness. LIZZY “I wonder what’s going to happen to me?” she said clinging to my hand with an iron grip that belied her 90 years. “I mean now,” she said, eyeing the syringe. The doctor replied, “Well I’m going to give you a shot of local anaesthetic and then I’m going to stitch you up.” She’d had another fall and is so thin that It’s a miracle she didn’t just break. She has no family, no money and has sold her flat to a crook. She doesn’t know how to cook and lives primarily on white bread and golden syrup when she can get it. Her greatest survival skill is a belief that everyone adores her, but the occupants of the other flats plainly don’t. She stood outside the gate with a stern-faced neighbour and waited in the dusk. She looked like a sad old bag lady. “They said they had no petrol to take me to the doctor. Of course they have petrol and I have to go NOW!” The panic rose in her voice and she started to cry again as she related the story. She chatted all the way to the surgery and worried far more about the way she looked than her inability to take care of her self. A kind Moslem doctor waited for us, “I wonder why he likes me so much?” she asked gaily on the way home. “It’s called zakaat,” I muttered ungraciously. But this narcissist has no concept of duty but mercifully she’ll automatically go to Heaven because she’s a Catholic! But as she lay there in his surgery being stitched up after hours, I wondered what would happen to her? – Rutenda Paradzai is a nom de plume for a correspondent in Zimbabwe.

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