Four o’clock in the morning?
‘Hello. It’s me, Sarah. Thought it might be safer to speak in the wee hours.’ Safer? My agent.
Waking up has never been one of my strong suits. Dawn is hell, predawn is worse.
‘Yes, Sarah?’ I yawned deeply.
‘I’ll do the rest by e-mail. Heard anyone writing for the BBC is under surveillance …’
Sigh. ‘Government is a little chary,’ I say cautiously. ‘Three journos questioned this week.’
‘Couldn’t get through earlier.’ Her Scottish brogue burred. ‘Your phones are a nightmare.’
Come on woman! Get to the point.
‘Will you do an article – undercover?’
‘I’m still in bed, if that’s what you mean!’ She did not laugh.
‘I need an exposé. How your society is being fractured.’
Fractured!? At four o’clock in the morning?
‘Old age in Zimbabwe,’ she said.
Old Age? Undercover? Our fractured society?
Sarah continued, ‘Politics. Emotion. Sort of a protest piece.’
Then the phone went dead. God, some of these media people are so naïve. They think that a call at a stupid hour of the morning is less likely to be monitored by Ray-Bans with earphones. Anyway, if they want you, they’ll get you.
I tumbled out of bed to have a strong coffee. As the dark roast dripped into the pot (which never stayed hot enough) I wondered about ‘The Old People of Zimbabwe’.
We never really hear about them in the local newspapers: AIDS, internecine politics, nasty whites, but the old?
- * *
Sarah’s e-mail was terse and professional. ‘Most old people do not have pensions. Inflation is too high for them to live without donations. What about their pride? How do they feel? She gave me some leads: good folk who gave their time to help the needy. Where had she got their names from?
‘It has to be edgy. Otherwise I can’t use it,’ she wrote. And, finally,
‘Travel and expenses only if article approved.’ That was that.
Agents always put pressure on you like this. They assume that because you come from Africa, you don’t know how to write. Asort of colonial amanuensis.
Opening is the key.
Catch the Western audience with a sound bite. Zimbabwe is an emotive one in the UK. Ex-colonial. Etc. Back it all into history; use a visual tool to provide location. Then, flesh out the story with plot and facts.
Write the story as you go along. Edit out the unpalatable.
Third cup of coffee. Fifth cigarette. They would like that. That would sell; massage the prejudices of the readers.
It was still too early to phone anyone. Walk around the garden, think of an unusual anchor to the story. My new car basked under the trees. White and glistening. I love Pajeros. I thanked my matchless prose which had earned me hard currency. Dashboard like an airline cockpit. ACD player. Even an altimeter, so that I could see what height I was in my garden.
To the telephone. The first interview was easy to follow up. Indomitable Sarah had contacted the Tom Benyon Trust in the UK which raised money for old people. ‘A widow. English. Not a penny to her name.’
They said she was over eighty, and lived in Waterfalls. I phoned the contact lady who sounded young and stern. ‘Bomb on out on the Seke road,’ she said. Bit Rhodie, I thought. Next thing she would be calling me ‘Ox’!
Her directions were a little random. ‘Then turn, and look behind the trees. There’s a cement cross near her gate,’ I was told.
Zimbabwe directions are more psychic than in other countries. Maybe it’s because we’re all born-again trackers? Or the street signs are now coffin handles? All I know is that we seem to find our way.
I always notice the different coloured soils when I travel: ‘Red, the Rich Earth,’ said Merna Wilson, a Zimbabwean poet, but perhaps she was only talking about the commercial farming areas. In Waterfalls, the soil is white, and smells of the bush. Acacias spread over the flat land, untouched by urban destruction.
I nearly missed the cross, hidden behind the elephant grass. A long dirt road led to an end. That was it. There was nothing. Just the end of the road.
I wandered around. A rank vlei, one hut in the distance, and a cow shed. It was like Mashonaland might have been a hundred years ago.
There could have been lions in the bush, boomslangs in the trees. But there was nothing. Silence. Emptiness. ‘Mrs Smith!’ I called. I did not see her at first.
I heard her. There was a rustle from the bush in front of me and she pushed her way through the grass. Slight, too thin, she wore a shawl over her head, multi-coloured wool faded into a wash of pink. Her face was very lined, brown-patched from the sun. Her hair, what I could see of it, was white, with occasional hints of old blonde.
She smiled, smoothed her hands over her skirt. It was made of black plastic bin-liners, neatly stitched together. The pocket was an old Gloria Flour cotton bag. She wiped her hands again, and took mine. Fierce strong hands, as if they were grasping life.
‘Now I have only one cow,’ she said, and laid down her sickle on the grass.
I looked around for it. No evidence at all. We walked past my car to the ramshackle cow shed.
‘Come in. Close the door.’ She ordered. Her voice was cracked, knife-edged.
As soon as the door was padlocked, I accustomed my eyes to the gloom. The only source of light came from a ventilation hole near the asbestos roof.
‘Do not talk too loudly,’ she said. ‘They will hear.’
At one end of the room was a stall, with freshly cut grass and a makeshift trough. ‘This is my house,’ she said.
Her home was this cowshed?
She had turned part of it into a bedroom, with an open fire, and a stall at the end for the cow. ‘She eating outside,’ she said. ‘I take her in herefor night. Because of them …’
The stall looked as if no animal had ever been near it. I listened to her accent. It was not British.
‘No,’ she cackled. ‘I am. But I’m not.’ She told me to sit on the box near the bare springs of her bed, while she perched on the metal frame and stared at me. She could have been a caricature from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Blue eyes in weathered skin. She appraised me. I looked around.
One cracked cup. One empty pot waiting near the fire. The rest of the utensils were old tin cans, and plastic bottles that we usually throw away.
She was so thin that I thought her legs might crack under the weight of her body.
‘My husband. He British. But I not. And then he die.’ What was that accent? Russian? Croatian?
‘I am born in Poland,’ she chuckled. ‘But it was not good there. That Hitler. He was not good man. I walk long way. Over mountains. To France. It was very long way. But I was young.’
Brief pause, as if forgetting.
Stories of pogroms, against Jews, Catholics, anyone who was not of the chosen race spilled out of her memory.
‘But then I meet husband. He was soldier with Britain. And we come here. Away from troubles.’ She patted her hair as if she was reliving a romance.
‘It was very wonderful. We had many cows.’ She smiled, a strange wound in the wrinkles. ‘He was good with hands. He was good man. Anything he could do.’
‘Did you have children?’
‘Look at that hole!’ she suddenly exclaimed. In the asbestos roof, there was a gash, as if a brick had come through it.
‘It was them! It was him!’
Who was ‘them’? Who was ‘him’? She was silent for a while.
The place was sinister. Blackened walls, the smell of damp. But it was clean. Not even a smell of her cow.
‘I am still strong.’ She said. ‘God. He look after me …’
She had no blankets that I could see. No sheets. Just a sack mattress.
‘You see hole? So small. Yet they come in my house!’
‘Have you no money?’
Frail shrug. Bony shoulders. ‘They come. One night. They try steal my cow. That is why she with me. It is safe.’
I wondered whether I should tell her she might be entitled to a British pension, but I was cut off.
‘I must find cow,’ she rasped. ‘Must find cow.’ She bustled into the glare. Outside seemed safer than inside her prison.
‘There!’ She whispered. ‘There they are!’
She glared across the vlei.
‘See?’ She spat. I turned to look.
‘No! Don’t you let him see you!’ She said desperately. ‘He then think you bringing money. He will come for me at night!
‘Danger! Shh! He climb through that hole. He jump on me. Last time he tried …’ She smoothed her plastic skirt. ‘But I a good woman. I belong to God. He make me strong.’
There was a group of young kids running around the vlei staring at us. Among them was an older boy of about fifteen. Tall, and slim, he looked like a runner.
‘He evil boy,’ she said. ‘But he know no better!’
She sniffed (scenting her cow?), and headed towards the grass.
‘I have to find cow. First they want to eat her. Then he want my house.’
The teenage boy stood up, and watched her. He did not look threatening, but he was dressed in filthy rags, and the other kids were half naked.
‘He beg. That all he do. No parents. They die from sin of sex,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘He who look after children. I pray for him.’
The youngest of the kids must have been about three. A lovely little girl, banging a tin spoon on a stone. The older boy just watched.
‘He hungry. Like all boys. People not give him sex. They say he poisoned like parents.’
‘Do they pay you rent?’
Her laugh was a cackle. ‘If I ask money, they kill me. People not listening to Lord anymore.’
I pressed the auto-switch to open my car. The flashing lights advertised my new Pajero. She scurried up to my window, ‘I say prayer for you. I know God loves you!’ The old woman leaned into the car and grabbed my hands. She began to pray, quietly…
Thanking God for saving her for His service.
Her voice got louder.
Thanking Him for her children’s happiness in Heaven.
Thanking Him for a Pope from her country.
Thanking him for saving Zimbabwe from Sin.
Then she grasped my hands tighter, beseeching.
She said the Lord’s Prayer – in Polish.
While she prayed, the young man watched from the other side of the vlei. As I drove off, she picked up her scythe. I never saw her cow.Post published in: Arts