By Rumbi Munochiveyi
The Girl arrived a little after dusk as Manyara laid out plates for dinner. The Girl knocked on the gate with a kind of urgency that disturbed even the old dog, Lazy Bones, who never shook out of sleep for any reason. He barked furiously whilst running around, circling the house in a confused, frantic rant.
Manyara and her husband, Chamunorwa, dropped everything, opened the door with a hard push and rushed, barefooted, towards the gate, wondering what kind of madness had arrived with such loudness. Baby Tinaye came toddling behind whilst Cheneso stayed glued to the television, watching Frozen for the seventy-ninth time that year, even though to her friends, Manyara swore her daughters only watched television thirty-five minutes each week. At the gate, Chamunorwa gently pushed Manyara to the side, peeked through the gap that let in light from a distant streetlamp and made out the small figure of a woman. They had both not expected to find a woman of such little stature, armed with just a market bag, standing there, alone in that fierce darkness of night. The force of the pound of her knock had seemed lethal, as though it came from a heavier, more solid person, a man, perhaps.
“Manheru!” Chamunorwa greeted The Girl.
“Good evening,” The Girl greeted back in English, with an unexpected gentleness in her voice.
“What brings you here in this darkness?” Manyara asked, with a hint of impatience in her voice. She had never trusted young women of The Girl’s age, mid, early twenties, or somewhere thereabout.
“The job. I’m looking for a job. I hear there’s a job.” The Girl spoke fast, but in a bold, calm manner. “I’m sorry I knocked like a crazy person. Your neighbourhood is scary. It’s too dark. I got lost and I knocked there, on that gate.” She pointed across to a neighbour’s house. “And a huge dog came barking, running like it was determined to eat me. I ran. Fast. Towards the main road. It took me long to make sense of the numbers again.”
She was still somewhat panting from the run. And it was clear, in her voice, that she had been the determined one that night.
“Come in, my sister. It is a little chilly out here,” Chamunorwa said.
Manyara picked up Baby Tinaye from the ground, wedged her onto her side, just above her hip, and they all walked in a file towards the house. The nights were getting chilly as the cold July winds intensified. For the most part people stayed indoors at night and only ventured out when life dictated.
Inside, The Girl told them her name, her totem, the village she came from, the rivers you crossed to get there, and whose direct descendant she was. Chamunorwa was delighted to find out she was of the elephant totem, “The Big Animal,” as his friends all called him.
“So, you are my real sister. I should have known from your boldness right away,” Chamunorwa said, and they all laughed.
She told them how she had recently lost her job. She had worked, for three years, as a maid in the home of a woman who lived in Avondale and taught at the St. John’s Preparatory School. The woman had woken up a few days ago, and from nowhere, with no warning, and inspired by something she never revealed, announced that she would no longer need The Girl’s help. The Girl had been perplexed, but unable to fight the dismissal, she had packed to leave for the village at the end of that week as agreed. That afternoon, as she said her goodbyes to her friends, maids and gardeners from neighbouring homes, she had learned about the job at Manyara and Chamunorwa’s house. They had given her an address, told her where to board the kombis that could take her there, and discouraged her from ever entertaining the thought of going back to the village. What was there to go back to?
When the moment came, and the St. John’s Prep School teacher handed her a severance package of three of her old dresses, a few old pairs of shoes that had once belonged to her children, to gift anyone in need in the village, and two months’ salary, The Girl had immediately pulled out the address for this potential new job and made her way to Town where, luckily, she caught the last kombis driving out to Shawasha Hills that night. The kombis going to such places stopped early. People who lived in the northern suburbs of Harare did not need public transport, their maids and gardeners, perhaps.
Manyara and Chamunorwa lived in one of Harare’s leafiest suburbs. They had built the house with a huge bank loan Manyara had acquired using her position at the International Bank, but they told everyone it was money from Chamunorwa’s retirement package from his job of sixteen years. Their friends had been appalled by his move to leave his stable job in management at the Sugar Refinery Company to start his own business importing tyres from South Africa. “Entrepreneurship is the way to go for black people in our country now. But we know the ups and downs of a business in this shaky economy, so we timed the move to be backed by a promising move in Manyara’s career. We will be fine,” they had told friends.
Manyara had risen through the ranks in the International Bank to become one of the Directors of Operations in the same bank she had worked since graduating from college twelve and a half years ago, and she now enjoyed a life of work lived on planes and in hotels as she travelled around the continent addressing one operations problem after the other. She could never afford a day without a maid.
When it came to maids, Manyara had had a turbulent past few years. “They just never stay, no matter how well I treat them,” she’d complain to her friends and neighbours. “I give them soap, Vaseline, a bedroom to sleep in, and three meals, daily. How many Girls have the luxury of eating three meals in the homes they work these days? Huh?”
And yet they kept leaving!
Manyara listened well as The Girl spoke. There was something about her that Manyara liked immediately. The Girl was bold. Seemed strong willed. And she spoke with the plainness of someone who had never learned how to lie. She would make a great, honest maid, Manyara thought.
It had been three years now since Manyara, acting on wisdom received from her Pastor’s wife, had started recruiting only village Girls for the post, discouraged from hiring city Girls by what everyone agreed was their lack of seriousness, a weakness of a generation that had grown up surrounded by bright city lights.
Together with many other educated, working women of Harare, she abandoned the City Girls, who also, whilst not educated enough to get formal employment in the city, had either partly studied for their O’Levels, or been exposed to so much else in the way of a modern life, and so came to these maid jobs with undesirable, hidden ambition. They wanted to get a driver’s license. Learn how to operate computers. Complete their O’Levels, and have a try at Town jobs eventually, in offices, sitting behind computers. And worst of all, Manyara and her friends agreed, they wanted husbands, and families, too. Plainly taken in, to Manyara and her friends, these Girls wanted their bosses’ lives, to upset the hierarchy of social order, and climb to positions they were never meant to reach.
“Village Girls come with no light in their eyes. Those will not run away. They come raw. You have to teach them to wash their faces with an upward motion each morning, to wake them up a bit, and adapt to fast moving city life.”
“And they will never take your husband!”
“Oh, they can barely bathe themselves well when they’re sent to you, smelling of the smoke of kitchen fire when they arrive. You’re safer with that lot.”
This, the young, educated women of Harare could all agree on.
In her first season of Village Girls and Village Girls only, Dambudzo, from Zviyambe, had come with all the eagerness of a girl arriving in the city for the first time. Dambudzo marvelled at everything and spent her daytime hours exploring all the curious technologies in the house, inventions her village life had not allowed her to encounter. The ever-whistling kettle, the dual switches that magically turned on one light from different ends of a room, the microwave machine that cooked food with no fire but just air, the stove itself, and the VCR that once a tape was popped into it brought to life a football game that was played many days ago that Chamunorwa had missed. She poked and poked at these things, flickered switches up and down, up and down, and laughed out aloud whilst alone in these rooms.
Once done with the inside, she ventured outside, where she talked to Mukoma Andrew, the loyal gardener who had trimmed the bougainvillea hedges and tended the lawns, all the flowers and the shrubbery that surrounded the house and garage, for twelve years now. Once done interviewing Mukoma Andrew about the beautiful perennials and whatever else he grew in the gardens, she stepped out into the streets and knocked at neighbours’ gates and befriended other maids and gardeners.
Manyara appreciated that Dambudzo was quick with the housework and took great care of Cheneso, who was just a baby when Dambudzo arrived, but the girl’s love for talk-talk in her free hours had soon contrived a deadly rumour mill that spun the whole neighbourhood into a frenzied, spider web tangle.
First, Dambudzo had managed to uncover that the eyes and ears of Bobby, the boy at House Number 3, belonged to Baba Munetsi from House Number 7.
“I am telling you, Mamma. That boy’s eyes and ears are just like Munetsi and Baba Munetsi’s. Nababa kudai!” She swore on the life of her living father as she told Manyara.
Manyara warned her against her story trading tendencies, suggested that it may be best she kept some of her observations and collections to herself.
But not with Dambudzo! She made sure the whispers circulated and reached the households of concerned parties, quickly as well.
A few days later, Mai Munetsi stormed into Manyara’s house, in tears, speaking with certainty about her husband’s infidelity. Word had finally reached her.
“Have you seen Bobby from Number 3’s ears? And his eyes! Everyone has seen it. I don’t know how I had not seen it, every day in that school drop-off line. It is as though my husband was copied and pasted onto the child!” She cried.
As soon as she left, Dambudzo, who’d been listening in from the kitchen, walked into the room where Manyara was seated in the same spot Mai Munetsi had found her, still trying to recover from the weirdness and shock of that conversation. “See, they have me to thank. We would never have found out we are living with a snake in our midst,” Dambudzo whispered, speaking in low tones, as though Manyara werean old gossip partner with whom she did this often.She paused, as though to think deeper, and went on, “No, actually, it’s worse for her. She is the one sleeping with the snake in her b…”
“Stop it, Dambudzo! Just you stop it!” Manyara yelled.“Haven’t you done enough damage already? This story should never have been uncovered. Don’t you get it? Some things are never meant to be uncovered. It is for everyone’s good.”
Mai Munetsi never came to church at the St. Anthony’s Parish again. She now drove every Sunday all the way to The Cathedral in the City Centre. The church women at the St. Anthony’s Parish feasted on the story, shaking their heads in a prayerful way and invoking the strength of God into their conversations, to dignify gossip spread in the house of the Lord.
But Dambudzo was relentless. Stopping at nothing, and for no one. She continued to spread other small and big chatters around the neighbourhood, hoping about with what appeared to be the cluelessness of a child.
Manyara thought the girl should leave, but when they sat down with her, Chamunorwa, who would be stuck with the kids at home whilst they looked for the next maid, begged with Manyara to keep her. For what was gossip amongst young people, really? And she was good with the house and the kids, he pleaded.
Dambudzo stayed. She thanked Chamunorwa with furious claps of gratitude that left Manyara rolling her eyes, feeling exhausted and saying, “What is it that possesses this Girl?”
In the days that came after her job revaluation, Dambudzo reduced her visits to neighbouring maids and gardeners, frequenting Mukoma Andrew’s garden now. It was not long before she had uncovered the well-kept secret of the true story of why Chamunorwa left the Sugar Refinery Company. In her usual efficiency, but with much hesitancy this time, she had whispered it to AuntyZoe, Manyara’s too forward, too loud sister-in-law, who had delighted in sharing the story with a few relatives right after.
As Dambudzo had gathered, Chamunorwa had not left his job because he was “tired of working for a white man nineteen years after Independence,” as the couple had professed in the retirement for entrepreneurship story. Chamunorwa had been fired for smuggling out bags upon bags of sugar from the refinery. He stuffed them into his briefcase, and two, three times each day, snuck out, and went to his car to empty the briefcase before sneaking back in, to calmly continue his work as a good foreman, yelling out orders with a voice burdened with fake loyalty to the owners of the refinery. On busy days when there was so much traffic at the refinery and everyone struggled to keep up with the buzzing confusion of hyper production, Chamunorwa wheeled a whole cart of bags of sugar to the trunk of his car. Each day he escaped the car search at the gate because it was known to all that stealing sugar was beneath management.
It was also in those days the country had begun, in earnest, to have issues with basic commodities becoming scarce. Long queues for bread, sugar, maize meal and oil formed and wound around the city like a snake of dysfunction marking its territory. Chamunorwa ran a thriving and efficient sugar-selling business from his car boot, far from home, in the western and southern suburbs of Harare, where, each time he arrived, kids called out to their mothers, “Sugarman is here! Sugarman is here!” And their mothers rushed out and lined up as Chamunorwa sold them portions of stolen sugar from a blue 250ml plastic cup that his wife used to measure the boiling water for jello on Sunday evenings. And just like that, Chamunorwa was a thief at work, a provider of unimaginable extra luxuries at home, and a saviour in Kambuzuma, Budiriro and Mufakose.
Until, one day, having fallen out with his junior, the assistant foreman, that newly acquired foe had marched into the CEO’s office and laid bare on a table Chamunorwa’s secret sugar smuggling business adventures, which the assistant foreman had observed silently in times of friendliness with Chamunorwa.
Mukoma Andrew, Chamunorwa and Manyara’s loyal gardener, had told Dambudzo all these things in confidence and with all the fine details of the scandal because he had been Sugarman’s unofficial assistant, helping measure out sugar from the bags in the boot with that 250ml blue cup, whilst Chamunorwa sat in the front, face covered, reading the Standard or The Sunday Mail. And, also, because Mukoma Andrew liked Dambudzo.
“Ende here we were, thinking it was real retirement money that had built this mansion,” Mainini Zoe had made sure to whisper loudly in gossip with their other sister-in-law, Mevhi, whose position in the family, as a younger, poor in-law, meant she could never verbalize a response, and generally stayed out of the squabbles of the strainedrelationship of her two elder sisters-in-law.
“What kind of retirement comes like that? I knew there was something up when I saw them buy a Mercedes for Manyara,” Mainini Zoe continued. “In Zimbabwe! A factory employee buying his wife a Mercedes. Hehede! Let me laugh. What kind of salary increment would that be? Even in management. In this economy! I knew it. I knew it, me!”
When the whispers finally made the rounds and back to Manyara, she took Dambudzo to the bus station the next day and asked the bus driver and conductor to make sure she went right to her village and to only drop her off at Makarara Growth Point once they were in Zviyambe and nowhere else.
Chamunorwa, stressed to no end by the coming out of his horrid secret, and frightened by all the unrest caused by Dambudzo’s mischief, took to helping his wife with suggestions on how to pick the next Girl. Chamunorwa had never spent a day alone with his children; the thought horrified him. “Whatever you do, Nyari, please get them older. Dambudzo had her issues, all right, but her age also worked against her. I know you said you loved that she asked for very little money, but at fifteen, she was just but a child.”
So, in search for the next Girl, Manyara told everyone her candidates had to be, a bit older. I want an older person, a woman. With some O’levels, at least.
“Having a little book in the head might help,” she further explained. “Not maGrade Seven like Dambudzo who almost made Gotham City out of our peaceful little town.”
“It is true. I am looking for a House Girl here.” Manyara told The Girl once The Girl was done relating her story.
The job was simple. She told The Girl. There was a schedule to be followed. She would wake up each morning by at least 5am, sweep clean the plain floors, vacuum in the living room, apply cobra on the wood floors, then polish them. Right after, she would come into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for Manyara and Chamunorwa. The kids’ too. But the kids, being fussy eaters, would sometimes require replacements for whatever she had prepared them. Lunches were to be prepared quickly, as the family ate breakfast, or if she were a good planner, the night before.By 10am on each day The Girl was to be done cleaning the bedrooms, the living area and the kitchen. Outside, she was to touch nothing. On this side of the city, houses and yards were too big for a House Girl to work both inside and outside as was the norm in most Southern suburbs.
“Here, we have an Outside Boy. Division of labour. Your main priority is caring for the children. So, all this cleaning and cooking business, you do it quick, quick, and make sure you can give the kids your full attention.”
The Girl nodded and turned to take a glance at Cheneso who now sat on a high stool by the kitchen island eating her macaroni and minced meat dinner her mother had just dished for her.
On Monday mornings, all sheets were to be changed and washed. Manyara continued, handing The Girl a plate of food. Hung on the lines, and by midday, taken down before they over-dried, then ironed, folded, as neatly as Manyara would teach her, then put away.
The Girl thanked Manyara for the dinner.
“I am very particular about this. Please make sure the sheets do not over dry. I can feel it when I sleep in sheets that stayed too long in the sun.” Manyara spoke as though The Girl worked for her already.
The Girl nodded, starting to dig into her dinner. Chamunorwa picked up Baby Tinaye from the floor and sat her on his lap, pulling his chair closer to Cheneso who seemed in need of help directing the forkfuls of macaroni and minced meat into her mouth.
It was the fifth day in a row serving Macaroni and Minced Meat. It was the quickest dish Manyara could make after a long day at work. Her mother-in-law had always thought it such a lowly dish; one a real woman must never serve her husband.
In between Dambudzo and the next maid, Manyara’s mother-in-law, MaDube, came from Rusape to help. She arrived exactly a week after Dambudzo left, with five market bags filled with goodies from the village. The warmth of her mother-in-law’s presence and nostalgia of familiar foods she had grown up eating in her own mother’s house, unprocessed at all, unlike the quick stuff that now filled her pantry, brought an air of peace to the house. Until three weeks intoher visit when Manyara began to wish the woman would pack her bags and go back to the village. Manyara would get home each night to find MaDubesitting with Chamunorwa and Cheneso in the living room, mother and son chatting and laughing the evening away, sharing old stories from Rusape. And the kitchen, dead, dead, dead. Cold! Nothing cooking for that night’s supper.
“Ko, guys, madii kubika? Why have you not cooked?” She finally asked one night.
“Aaah, muroora! I cannot touch a daughter-in-law’s pots ka,” MaDube explained quietly. “Zvinozoda here? Is that not just inappropriate?”
But it was not just her mother-in-law finding it inappropriate to touch her pots that now bothered her. It was everything. MaDube spent her days showering her grandchildren with love, waiting for her son to come home for village and old days talk, and to scrutinize everything Manyara did. And she had brought with her an extra bag full of suggestions as to how Manyara could manage her household better. She told Manyara the children spoke too much English and could barely coin a proper, respectful Shona greeting to their elders at any given time of the day. The little one was late potty-training, and Manyara’s cooking skills left a lot to be desired, something that raised questions about the woman who had raised Manyara.
“In the good days past, when women still valued their families and not skorokodo heels and tickling computers in little offices, children and the home came first,” Ma Dubehad eventually said to her directly, her mouth curled upwards towards her nose, in an attempt to convince Manyara to leave her job to care for the children till they were a bit grown.
Manyara had stood there in front of the fridge, unable to move, her tongue stuck in the confusion of needing to say something and remembering the trickiness of mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationships. She knew that culturally there were things one never said to a mother-in-law no matter how provoked you felt by her words or actions. Such confrontations never ended well for the junior woman in the relationship. After a while considering all possible outcomes had she said how she really felt, she simply nodded, as though in agreement with what had been said, and walked away, straight to her bedroom, to crash on the bed and cry buckets of tears, for MaDube to go back to the village, but especially for a maid, as she was just about done with all the housework and childcare shuffling.
“Her nerve!” Manyara’s friend, Chipo, would say the next Sunday after church as they stood sharing their household and maid dramas in low tones, as usual.
“For a woman who failed to keep her own husband in her home, I wonder what it is she thinks she knows about keeping a home.” They both laughed rather too loud and disrespectful laughs for the front of the church.
When she had reached a point where she thought one morning Chamunorwa would walk in to find her in a feisty full blown verbal fight with his mother, Manyara found a new maid. It was a Girl who came running away from her white boss who treated her “like it is Rhodesia again.”
MaDubeleft and the new Girl started on the job with a remarkable efficiency that made Manyara wonder why her previous boss had let her go.
They finished eating and Manyara continued explaining more on the job The Girl would be expected to do if she were to be hired in this house.
“Windows, you clean once a week. And whatever stains there are on the walls you just soap, soap, and rub, rub, quickly. Tinaye now walks with her hands on the walls a lot.”
Manyara looked around, as though to find more work that needed explaining before anyone could start on it. The Girl looked around also, probably taking in the grandeur of everything in the house. The house, which sat on a hill that gave a beautiful view of the rest of Shawasha Hills, was huge, perhaps close to 4,000 square feet, though separated onto two floors that were connected by a floating, spiral stairwell encased in black guardrails made of imported brass. The Girl moved her eyes along the guardrails, from the bottom to the top of the stairs, back down, and swallowed, hard.
“On Wednesdays that is when you do my laundry. Mine and Baba Cheneso’s,” Manyara went on. “Thursday, it’s the kids’. Friday, you do the ironing. That way you’re free from all this household stuff on weekends. Just in case we have guests.”
Manyara and Chamunorwa loved entertaining, and weekends saw them with lots of cooking and serving guests, in-laws, old friends, and clients from the bank, and random relatives who sometimes showed up with no notice, and could stay for as long as they wished, without being asked when they would leave. The House Girl usually helped with all this on Saturdays, then she went for her Day Off on Sunday morning after giving the children breakfast.
Maria, the Girl who came after her mother-in-law, loved the weekend parties more than all Manyara’s other maids. She did not seem to mind working the weekend hours and serving the endless guests all day long.
When Manyara observed the enthusiasm with which the girl worked, she had asked her why she had left her job with the white woman. The one who thought this was still Rhodesia.
“Mamma, that woman ka! She was something else. She made me wash her underwear. Dirty underwear. Even with her period blood! Month after month, no change, Mamma.” She had started calling Manyara Mamma, right from the first day.
“Aaah!” Manyara said, clearly shocked.
“Imagine, Mamma. Menstrual blood. But I stayed on. What could I do? These whites sooka!”
“Haaa, here you don’t have to worry about such. You do just the regular laundry. My husband’s underwear and my own, I wash alone. Takarairwakaisu! I’mnot like your white boss.”
But it would be only after a month of employing her that Manyara would find out something disturbing about this Girl’s extracurricular activities during the day.
“She sneaks her boyfriend in for lunch every afternoon, serving him a mountain of sadza that even the father of the house here would not eat,” Mukoma Andrew told Manyara.
“I had noticed a pattern. I knew this guy was coming in for something and I wanted to see it for myself and catch the real truth with my own eyes before telling you anything. Twice I saw him downing a whole Coca-Cola after the meal. The Coca-Cola you send me to buy for your weekend guests. Imagine, Mamma!” Mukoma Andrew concluded.
Maria argued that the amount of work and the salary did not match, so she had taken it into her own hands to reward herself with a few, small benefits such as serving her struggling uncle a small lunch.
It was a weird thing, but it seemed all the maids called their boyfriends, “my uncle from the village,” and took to sneaking them in and feeding them whilst no one was home.
Manyara imagined this Girl arriving at a new house for a new job, and telling her new bosses, “They treated me like it’s Rhodesia again. I could not even bring in my very close relative who had come all the way from the village to visit me. But I stayed, what could I do?”
“They are not grateful, these people.” Manyara said, as she updated her friends about starting yet another Girl-hunt. “I gave her soap, food, and a bed to sleep in. What salary would have been enough for her then?”
Manyara went to put the kids to bed and came back to find The Girl done washing all the dishes. She thanked her and continued explaining the job requirements.
It was a job that required efficiency. And in reward, Manyara would give The Girl a good salary, on time, every month. She promised. A hundred and fifty dollars, three crisp fifty-dollar bills that the previous maid, Evidence, had used to buy groceries to send to her two children in the village. And school uniforms. And to pay for their school fees. All of which was sent via the bus drivers and conductors of the Matemba bus that went to her village from Mbare Musika every weekday. She did not go to the village herself, as there never was any change left for bus fare each month. So, she stayed on in Harare, working for her children who lived with her aging mother, and only went back home to see them during the major public holidays, Easter in April, the Heroes’ Weekend in August, and Christmas in December, a total of less than thirty-five days in a year. But, fortunately, for Evidence, Manyara always reminded her, Manyara gave her bath soap, food and accommodation, so being penniless after sending money to the village could not be much of an issue.
Evidence had never complained about anything, which had made her Manyara’s favourite. On Saturday mornings, and Sundays before she left for her Day Off, she would rush to get the baby the moment she heard the cry just after 6am. And Manyara would tell her friends, “She is the first maid who doesn’t complain, complain. She even understands that I work all week and need to rest on weekend mornings.”
Then one afternoon, with absolutely no warning at all, Evidence had packed and left. And in her usual silent manner, left neither a note nor a sign of anger or frustration. Just disappeared. Poof. Gone! Like that!
I hope this one stays. She looks like the kind to stay, Manyara thought to herself as The Girl helped her clean up after dinner, waiting to continue their conversation in a clean kitchen.
Manyara was nine months pregnant with Tinaye when along came Svodai who could scrub walls until they looked like they had only ever been plastered and left with no paint. Manyara fired Svodai on the day she found Chamunorwa’s underwear amongst Svodai’s belongings. Svodai had blinked, and looked to the ground, and into the wall, and into her own chest, finding nowhere to place her embarrassed gaze.
Manyara had exploded, saliva foaming and popping out through the corners of her mouth. “Do you want to be my mukadzinin’ina? My second in this marriage?”
“What is Chamunorwa’s underwear doing amongst your things?”
“You think I have not seen the way you look at him. And move around the living room senseless, polishing, polishing surfaces that need no polishing. Just to be noticed?”
“Taura, Musikana! Talk!”
“Does he sleep in this room when I travel? Huh?”
“You want my life, ka. Is that it? I said, answer me, Svodai!”
Svodai came from the village of Masvingo, 298km south of Harare, a six-hour bus drive.
Svodai stammered and stammered,and she was sent back to the village that night.
“I can’t stop travelling! I can’t quit my job! And yet the Girls keep leaving. They are never grateful. After all we do for them, they always find a way to mistreat us like this. Mine eat in the house. I buy them soap. And they live rent-free. And yet, like this Girl, they whine about a salary increment, mourning the decline in the value of the Zim dollar like they know athing about the economy,” Manyarasaid as she sat with friends, dissecting the saga of Chamunorwa’s underwear.
“Maybe you overlooked something. I don’t want to think Chamu would do something like that,” her friend Ruvimbo said. “What if she was just stealing stuff to sell? The salaries you give them here are too low. And for so much work. In SA, the department of labour would never allow anyone to work for a pittance as these your maids do here.”
Ruvimbo had just moved back home from South Africa where her husband had held a job as headmaster at one of the toniest of South Africa’s private high schools. In returning home, Ruvimbo seemed to have arrived with the air of a hawk that hovered from above and watched everything from a distance just waiting to strike. And Manyara and the rest of their friends, all of whom had met at the University of Zimbabwe, resented her.
“What do you mean too much work?” Manyara said.
“Your maids are always leaving, Manyara. You complain about it and hire the next one, without much introspection, never changing a thing. I’ve seen you and how you run your homes here. In SA, I paid my maid R2000, which is why I’m appalled by the sick figures you loudly speak of in terms of payment for your house helpers. In Zim dollars even. Aaah! You give them no incentive to be loyal. No wonder they steal and run.” Ruvimbo was unstoppable when she started. “Would you work for meals or Vaseline as bonus?”
Ruvimbo had studied constitutional law that many years back when they were at the UZ and went on to get a master’s degree in South Africa and had just started her PhD when her husband accepted an offer to head the new International School in Harare. In these days that she was unemployed and finding ways to continue her PhD program that she had just abandoned with no clear plan as to how she would pick it up, in these days of having so many hours on her hands, she argued cases “for the downtrodden” amongst her people, in her social circles. She argued for the market women with whom she wanted her friends to stop their haggling habits. For the hairdressers and nail ladies they visited on relaxed Saturday afternoons. And the maids! The House Girls!
She always landed back onto her favourite one. The case of the House Girl.
“First,” Ruvimbo said to Manyara. “Stop with ‘Girl, Girl.’ ‘The Girl, The Girl!’ Do they not have names? Then next, what exactly does Chamu do all day?”
“He has the tyre company, and…” Manyara started.
“What does he really do all day, Manyara?”
“It’s about time, Manyara. It’s beginning to happen all over the world. It’s the 90’s, not 70’s. He can help a bit. You can’t…just by yourself…you can’t!”
Manyara could have rolled her eyes. What she resented most about Ruvimbo was this part where she really could fix everything, could fix everyone, with just words. A walking bag of solutions. This conversation ate at Manyara for a long time, and she was determined to keep her next maid longer than any of them had ever managed.
So, when this young woman banged and knocked at a senseless hour of the night, whilst Manyara would normally have said, “endai, mozodzoka mangwana. Come tomorrow morning. I’m too tired to talk work issues right now,” whilst she’d normally have said that, that night she did not. In fact, she offered The Girl to spend the night, even before they finalized their working contract.
“Aah, to go out in this wicked night. Please sleep. Besides, we are as good as set. Paapenyu pano. You’re one of us already,” she had told The Girl.
It was only the next morning as they were finalizing the contract, having agreed on most aspects of their working relationship the previous night, that The Girl said, “But Mamma, I also have something I need to say before we start working together.”
“Ehh, chiizve?” Manyara asked.
“Oh, nothing bad. It’s just…I…I have a small child. And would like to come with her.”
“Aaah!” Manyara said, placing her hand on her bosom. “How old?”
“Aaah! Like Cheneso.”
“Mmhh, this…mmhh, if it’s kids, mmhh, I really cannot work with someone who wants to bring her own child here. Eeeeh…she wouldn’t be able care for mine well. You know…youknow how it works ka. These jobs are like real jobs. We try to be professional in this house. That is why I asked all those questions…about life, education, and everything,” Manyara said, the enthusiasm in her voice waning.
“I heard some people do it now,” The Girl said, hesitantly. “I will balance my work, I promise.”
“Ko…? Ko…where has she been living all along?”
“She lived with my grandmother who recently passed.”
“Aaah, inga sorry hako. I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother.Mmhh, this complicates things, yeah…yeah.” Manyara lookedover her glasses, as though she saw The Girl in new light and needed her sight adjusted. “Bringing a child to work!”
Manyara said, lifting her head a little now, to give the eyes and the awkwardness a break.
Manyara did not know what to say. She had known The Girl for just a few hours, but she could already tell The Girl was a thoughtful young woman, burdened with a series of unfortunate events that left her almost helpless, at the mercy of people like Manyara.“I have…I have a few more interviews, you see. I will call you after and let you know if you got the job,” Manyara said, getting up to lead The Girl out of the door.
The Girl did not say anything back, perhaps her response choked by the sudden twist of events.
That night, before turning off their night lamps, after a long pondering, mouthing it to herself, Manyara eventually managed to turn and say to her husband, “Chamu, can you wa…are you able…do you know how to wash your own underwear?”
Chamunorwa shifted, and turned, until his body faced Manyara wholly. He moved his head this way, then repositioned the arm he now rested on. He stared without moving, without making a sound. They were like that for a long moment, until Manyara turned and reached for the switch of her night light, leaving the newly formed ripples dancing on the disturbed surface of their marriage. E
Rumbi Munochiveyi is a writer based in the United States. She is currently awaiting the publication of her first novel.