‘Running in Zimbabwe’

The following is an excerpt from the short story ‘Shamisos’ by NoViolet Bulawayo, one of the 15 short stories in the anthology Writing Free, published in 2011 by Weaver Press.

Bulawayo
Bulawayo

‘These white creepers? They must be taken out. I want them gone.’

Method taps his hoe and watches her hands gesture towards the flowering creeper. Her face is ablaze. Method swallows his surprised question, the words drowning in his throat.

The jasmine is in full bloom, their fragrance reminding him of Shamiso, the girl in 3C1 class at Njube Secondary School. Method wrote love letters to her and slipped them into her TM Hyper plastic bag, careful not to sign his name because he didn’t think she would ever look at a boy like him. He calls this lovely creeper Shamiso because it brings back memories.

‘We’ll put red roses in their place,’ his madam smiles. Method forces a smile in return.

‘It’ll be just perfect, you’ll see.’ Her voice is suddenly cajoling.

Method nods, even though he’s sure that roses cannot compare to the beauty of the jasmine in full bloom. Shamisos.

‘But these are beautiful too, Madam.’ Method speaks quietly when he addresses her because he knows the importance of sounding respectful.

‘Are you sure you really want them gone, Madam?’

She nods her head vigorously, placing a finger over her lips as her cellphone is ringing. When she talks to Method she uses simple English, as if she were speaking to a small child, enunciating every word slowly and carefully. With other people she sounds normal, and Method imagines her tongue darting around her mouth, dodging her teeth, with speed and precision.

Now she speaks in English laced with French, which Method studied for three years before the University was forced to close. Right now. Yes-yes. Hell no, I’m not doing it myself, are you nuts? I fired the Nigerian, they’re thieves. I mean things were just disappearing. Yes-yes. And I got rid of the Malawian, they’re lazy, you should have seen the garden. No, I’ll never employ any South Africans, Jesus! They think just because this is their country they’re fucking entitled to everything. Yes-yes. No, in the house I have a Mozambican. An old man. Yes-yes. He has a temper but boy can he cook! Then she switches to French: Now I have a new gardener, a Zimbabwean. You too? Well, they’re everywhere, like cockroaches. Yes-yes. So far so good. Looks unhappy though, not sure what his story is. I’ll have to teach him to smile! Can you imagine!? But he’s hardworking. And you should see his head, its like a fucking hammer.

Method fidgets, wishing he didn’t understand this language she’s using to gossip about him as if he were invisible. He wonders that her mother did not teach her that one does not talk about people in their presence. The woman looks up from the phone, meets his gaze, and flashes him a smile. Method beholds her coolly. She shoos him away and points vigorously at the creepers. He grabs his hoe and feels her watching him. He would love to get down on his knees and touch the Shamisos one last time but with her eyes on his back, he starts swinging his hoe.

A single hit and the first Shamiso is lying on the ground. He has no time to pick it up, to examine the damage, because she’s somewhere behind him and so he swings, and keeps swinging. He does not want her to think him lazy. In no time he has a carpet of dying flowers around his feet, their fragrance suddenly thick in the air. Method looks toward the main house and sees the Mozambican staring at him through the kitchen window.

He does not know the man’s name and he cannot see his face because of the distance between them, but he can tell from the way he’s leaning forward that he’s puzzled. Method looks away. He hardly knows the Mozambican because he works inside the house, like a woman.

Now and then Method will see him taking out the rubbish, hanging clothes on the line, retrieving letters from the postbox. Once, when the Mozambican was hanging out clothes, he had stopped to talk to Method: ‘My wife and children do these things for me back home, do you know that?’ Method had shaken his head because it seemed the question was purely rhetorical.

‘Yes, you don’t know what it means for me to work like this, at my age,’ the Mozambican continued, and Method nodded in a show of sympathy. But still he could not help thinking the old man was being unreasonable; it could not surely be that bad, working in such a nice house: the lush cream carpets, the large TV, the deep sofas, the electrical gadgets.

It was the home of Method’s dreams – that is, when he made it big in South Africa. Then, his mother would live with him, waking up when she pleased to sit in front of the TV with her legs stretched out in front of her, smiling her brown-toothed smile and saying, ‘My son, I am proud of you.’

‘Hey you, Zimbabwean! What do you think you’re doing?’

Method looks up at the sound of the brassy voice and finds himself staring at a bloodied kitchen knife. The Mozambican is waving it in his face.

‘Are you mad? Can’t you see you’re killing the flowers?’

‘I’m not killing them.’ Method feels defensive.

‘What’s this then, air?’ The Mozambican scoops up some wilting blooms and flings them at Method.

‘Madam doesn’t want them any more.’

‘She doesn’t want the flowers?’ The Mozambican’s face knots in confusion.

‘No. I mean, yes. She wants to plant roses, red roses instead.’ Method is relieved he cannot see her anywhere; he would not want her to hear them talking about her.

‘But they’re beautiful.’ The old man’s voice is spent. Method looks at his white apron, clean except for a single red stain, and then at the butcher’s knife, and wonders what animal the meat came from.

The Mozambican kneels down and cradles one small blossom in both hands, and Method notices that he’s missing two fingers on his left hand – Method looks down embarrassed by the sight of an old man mourning a flower. He’s relieved when the man at last stands up and turns to leave, taking the flower with him. Method mumbles an apology, though he does not exactly know what for. He realises that he has spoken in his own language, and assumes the Mozambican would not have understood him. After the older man has disappeared into the house Method goes back to hacking. He is strangely upset, and can’t quite explain why. He glances up to see the woman come out of the house and sit on the garden chair beneath the guava tree. She’s still on the phone. He thinks of what she said about him, not knowing he could understand her. If he were at home, he would have grabbed her phone and slapped her with the back of his hand. But he’s not at home, and besides, she’s not a normal woman. Method had thought they were sisters at first, the two women who shared the house, but one day, cutting the dense foliage behind the bedroom window, he had seen them sitting on the bed. They’d been arguing, and it was after their bickering had died down that he’d seen, from the posture of their bodies, from the way the one with a man’s name, who never wore dresses, from the way that she looked at Madam, that this was not sisterhood.

Method had been stunned, then disgusted, remembering how such a thing did not even have a name in his country, how everybody back there knew that such people were not people, they were worse than pigs and dogs. If he’d been at home, he would have climbed in through the window and beaten them senseless, especially that other one who wore men’s clothes. He would have raised the alarm and people would have been happy to drag them out in the open and beat them till they could not scream. And if he had had a choice, Method would simply have spat in their faces and quit his job, but knowing how hard it was to find employment, he’d stayed. Meanwhile his mother’s letters never stopped coming,

Dear Method, this is to tell you we are dying of hunger, My son Method, have you forgotten about us? He had no choice but to stay and work for these two strange women, but he was always on the lookout, to see what they might do. But they did not do anything, and nothing happened to him. They greeted him warmly when he came to work, paid him his wages fairly, and on time, made sure he was fed from their kitchen at lunch, and did not overwork him like some of his friends complained their employers did. Despite the fact that Madam occasionally spoke to him like a child, he was alarmed at how well they treated him. This baffled Method; how it was that these two, who were surely worse than animals, treated him as if he counted. He did not know quite when his disgust disappeared, but somehow it did, like a fart in the wind.

About the Author

Noviolet Bulawayo was born in Tsholotsho a year after Zimbabwe’s independence. When she was eighteen, she moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In 2011 she won the Caine Prize for African Writing; in 2009 she was shortlisted for the South Africa PEN Studzinsi Award, judged by J.M. Coetzee. Her work has appeared in magazines and in anthologies in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the UK. She earned her MFA at Cornell University, where she was also awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship, and she is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in California.

Her novel, We Need New Names, published in the UK, US and Zimbabwe has just been nominated for the ManBooker prize and the Guardian first fiction awards.

Post published in: Arts

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