Three Vignettes from Thirty Years Ago in Africa
We could not believe our eyes when we saw the house for the first time. It was in the low-density neighborhood of Chisipite in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe—formerly Salisbury, Rhodesia—near some posh shops and across the street from a private girls' school. It had two floors, nine acres of land, many fruit trees, a stream, and a swimming pool. The place would have been picture-perfect if only one minor detail were in order.
The pool, which was behind the house and connected to the veranda by steps on a short but sharp slope, had been neglected while the house was up for sale. The European family that once lived here left for Australia in a hurry. They had had enough of black power—three long years of it. They gave the keys to the property to their lawyer, jumped on a plane, and flew to a life that was never going to be as good as the one they enjoyed so much in the times of Rhodesia, the times when whites ruled the country. We were the first Africans to live here in the history of this house.
Dead frogs, leaves, and various feathers floated on the pool's surface. The water was green and not blue. It and the lawn had the same color. It and the sun had no magic. Indeed, the pool did not so much reflect the sun as imprison it beneath a biotic film. Our father, an industrial officer for the Ministry of Industry and Technology, and the first African to hold that position in the new government of Zimbabwe, was trained at American University in Washington, D.C. He vowed to make the swimming pool blue and crystal clear in no time.
"We are not going to be like other Africans," our father said over dinner, a maid offering him a bowl of water to wash his hands. "You know how they do. They buy a nice house like this from a European and do not know what to do with the luxuries. They are so used to poverty and the hard life. A swimming pool is not seen as a pleasure but a pain in the ass. So they fill it up with soil and grow corn right there." Our father laughed heartily, our mother smiled motherly, the maid did not express anything at all because she did not speak English. What a hoi polloi she was.
We loved our father. We loved his advanced education and his many books and great ideas. He loved John Locke and everything to do with the Age of Enlightenment. "Without reason, we are blind," our father was so fond of saying. "The real is the rational and the rational is real," we overheard him say to a significant government official who was visiting the new house—they were sitting in the wet bar, they had just returned from a trip to Brazil, they and other senior officials had seen the central role ethanol played in the economy of that developing country.
Our father began to work on the pool. He bought the right chemicals; he read books on the art of swimming-pool maintenance. He examined every detail of the filtering machine. He was going to turn things around. Our father was not like those other Africans. You know, like Baba Tonderai; he did not even know what to do with his tennis court. He just grew corn on it. What an African.
Right after work, after dealing with the industrial development of the country, our father would go down to the pool, pipe in mouth, run the filter machine, pour in some chemicals, and stir the water. "Next week, the pool will be ready for you," he promised us. "I did not get a master's in economics for nothing. You need your own swimming pool. Africa is a hot continent."
The next week came and went.
The next month came and went.
When the third month of our stay in the house arrived with no significant change in the color of the pool—it had refused to reward our father's mental and physical determination, it entirely resisted reason's attempt to return it from the wildness of nature, it stubbornly rejected all of this stirring, scooping, and testing chemical balances—we began to express some frustration. What was our father doing wrong that Europeans seemed to do right with much less effort? Maybe he should go to a European and learn a thing or two about swimming pools. But our father was not ready to surrender. He was going to make the pool blue on his own terms and with his own resources.
When month number six in the house arrived but the blue pool did not, our father began losing the war growing in his mind. He would cheerlessly return from work, cheerlessly walk down to the pool, and cheerlessly talk to it as if it were a person. Once, we even heard him whispering threatening things in Shona to the pool. Another time, we saw him on all fours on the diving board, staring into the deep end.
During dinner, he no longer talked to us. He would wash his hands and chew in silence. After dinner, he'd drink in the wet bar by himself; after drinking, he'd head outside, head down to the very thing that was consuming his once-mighty sanity. At night, the moon was the pool's prisoner.
One day, our father returned from work with an expression on his face more appropriate for Satan than an industrial officer. He had something in his hand. He was trying to hide it from us. It was wrapped in newspaper. It was round like a football. "What are you looking at? Don't you have schoolwork to do? I'm not paying all of those school fees so that you can stand around and just stare at me." We watched our father from the window of the living room. We saw him walk down to the pool, unwrap the ball-like thing, and, with the force of a man delivering a deathblow to his prone enemy, hurl the white object at the heart of the pool. It made a big splash and then fussily, fizzily dissolved. Even our mother was mystified by this behavior. "Why doesn't he just go and get a garden boy from a white man's house and have this over and done with?" our mother said to us. "Why is he resorting to magic? A man of his learning. But he has been like this from the beginning. He is so smart, yet he is also very good at wasting all of it on things that don't matter. Do you know what I could do if I had just half of his mind? I'd be president of this country." But our mother was a professor. How much smarter can you be than that?
The next day, a sunny Saturday, our father woke us up. He had towels in his hands. His face was too bright. "The pool is blue. It's time for you to swim." We could not believe our ears. We took the towels and ran outside. But when we saw the pool, we stopped cold. It was not exactly blue. It was bluish, purplish, pinkish, orangish. It had too many bubbles, which looked like suspended particles, giving it the consistency of the soup we had been served at the new Japanese restaurant.
Our father was on the steps with a camera on his face. "Swim, I'm taking a picture." We looked up at our mother. She was on the veranda looking down at us with great concern. "Mom, is it blue?" Our mother went into the house without offering an answer. "It's blue! Can't you see?" our father yelled. "Now jump in!" We turned to the pool and saw it was still bluish, purplish, pinkish, orangish. We feared this new pool. It was not like the white people's pools. What kind of pool was it? We did not want to put a foot in it. It seemed to be alive like an animal. Many years later, I wrote a short story based on this episode, and in that fiction, we did put our feet in the pool and got scalded by the chemicals and screamed—just as I have fictionalized some of the details in what you are reading now, invented some dialogue, rearranged a few things. But my father's war with the pool was very real. In truth, we did not touch the water. We just stood there looking at it for an eternity.
I was standing by the bed (satchel on my side, socks up, gray shorts clean, pin-striped tie) watching Harrison (blond hair, blue eyes, a flawless nose, white and even teeth) open the closet containing his stepmother's clothes. We'd just returned from a rugby match at the school and were a little bored with the extra time on our hands. I was Harrison's first African friend.
Outside, the traffic on Enterprise Road was steady—vehicles carrying African soldiers, pickup trucks precariously carrying African laborers, buses packed with Africans returning to the city. Beyond the road and beneath the bright sky: kilometers and kilometers of tall and dry grass.
"She's not my mother, man," Harrison said with disgust after I referred to his stepmother, a teacher at the girls' school on Dover Road, incorrectly.
"She keeps her money here?" I said. "Not at a bank? A strange bird."
"A daft bird..." said Harrison, reaching beyond her neat pile of pretty and silky underthings—pinkish, reddish, purplish. Her name was Angela. Harrison pulled out an official-looking envelope stuffed with colorful cash. Most of the bills were blue $20 notes, with the giraffe and balancing rocks on the front and an elephant and Victoria Falls on the back. It was the new money of the new country.
"I'll take this," said Harrison, pocketing the bill. Our plan was to go to Dairy Queen and play some Asteroids. We were 15.
A loud engine was heard entering the front yard. It was Harrison's father, Martin. He was returning from a day at the factory. His Land Rover sounded like a factory—clanging metal, screaming gears, roaring pistons. We quickly left the master bedroom and waited in the living room. But before Martin entered, he got tied up with the garden boy, who was emptying swimming-pool supplies from the back of the Land Rover. (Eventually, my father would hire a garden boy much like this one, one of the white families' garden boys, to fix our swimming pool at last, with Western technology.)
Martin, in a blue safari suit, that is to say a bush jacket with matching shorts, entered with a box under his arm, greeted us, and walked straight to the bar at the back of the house. We remained in the living room, skimming copies of Scope magazine—women with stars on their breasts—and heard the crack of a beer cap and the lively rip of tape and cardboard. Harrison's older brother, Cory, who was attending boarding school, had once told him about a special issue of Scope that promised dissolvable stars in one of every 10 copies. All you needed was a few drops of water and voilà! Cory bought 20 of those magazines, dropped water on more than 20 stars, and none dissolved to reveal the model's nipple. All of the hot copies must not have crossed into Zimbabwe, Cory had told his younger brother. They kept them in South Africa, where the magazine was published. "It wasn't like that when we were Rhodesia. They used to have more respect for us back then," Cory told him. (White Africans were nicknamed "when we's" because they were forever saying, "When we were Rhodesia.")
Martin called: "Hey! You troublemakers! Come and see this!" We walked into the wet bar and saw a strange machine with metal canisters and small pipes. It looked like a miniature espresso machine.
"Here, take a seat." As we sat on the tall bar stools, the main door at the front of the house opened. It was Angela, Harrison's much- unloved stepmother, returning from the school where she taught "home economics." On several occasions, I had walked on the path by the main building of the girls' school and seen her teaching in a classroom of segmented model kitchens; the boys' school, which was east of the girls' school and which Harrison and I attended, had a model factory.
Angela stepped into the bar wearing casual clothes—slacks, modest high heels, a white blazer—and saw Martin fiddling with some machine, Harrison watching his father, and me looking at her. She mildly smiled at me and walked to the master bedroom, the door opening and shutting with a huff.
Martin handed us cups that fizzed and popped with something blackish. We sipped it.
"You know what it is?"
Harrison didn't know what to think.
"It tastes like... Coca-Cola?" I said with uncertainty.
"Precisely! This machine makes Coke with this..." Harrison's father held up some canisters. "It's real simple, and it means we don't have to buy it anymore."
"But we will have to buy those things," said Harrison, pointing at the canisters. Clearly he was not impressed with the homemade Coke and made no effort to see what his father clearly saw in the little machine—a symbol of Rhodesia's once-famous (if not world-famous) self-reliance. Briefly: After World War II, Great Britain began dismantling its massive colonial empire, piece by piece. But when it reached Southern Rhodesia in the mid-1960s and attempted to turn over power to black Africans, the white settlers blocked the transition and declared independence from their motherland. Great Britain responded by isolating the rude settlers and their landlocked country; the settlers responded to this isolation by industrializing and rapidly achieving self-sufficiency. Even today, former Rhodesians look back at this moment in history with great pride: They created a rich country with no support from the outside. This rich country, however, was unable to resolve its internal contradictions, and this led to a brutal war between settlers and the settled, the Africans.
Behind Martin and his new machine were closed French doors, and through them we could see the garden boy removing dead frogs and insects from the bright blue pool. "You can be such a wet blanket sometimes, Harrison," Martin said, downing the end of his Castle Lager and cracking the green cap of another.
When the door of the master bedroom reopened, I felt both excited (the steps of the very reason why I frequently visited Harrison were returning to the bar) and a little worried (did she notice the missing money?). But Angela entered the bar without a sign of trouble. Her face was bright with makeup and she was wearing tight hot pants and a see-through blouse, her very real and very ripe nipples pressed against the dreamy fabric. She was in her mid-30s; Martin was in his mid-40s. The two had married two years earlier, two years after their affair blossomed, which was two years before the end of the war of independence. Harrison's mother left the country after the divorce. The end of her marriage and her country happened all at once.
I was the only man of us three to notice Angela's transparency. Harrison was obviously avoiding making any eye contact with her. Martin could not have been more preoccupied with the soda-pop machine. Angela stood next to me, her nipples near my nose, and requested something with gin in it. I would have done anything to land a kiss on her nipples. Anything. I crossed my legs to conceal my growing agony for Angela. Lonely, lovely Angela.
Harrison's father quickly made her a drink and handed it off without looking at her.
"We're going to the shops," announced Harrison, who only now noticed that his stepmother was once again wearing something daring—her breasts were practically screaming at us. He knew his father to be indifferent to Angela's indecency, but he saw that I was not. Indeed, his father less and less noticed anything that had to do with his wife—she could be one of the girls in Scope magazine, stars on the nipples, and he would flip the page without realizing that those were the breasts that longed for his kisses every night, the breasts he turned his back to, the breasts that heard him snore. Rumor had it that Martin was banging a colored lady at the factory—it was not uncommon for a white man to have a secret relationship with a colored woman, meaning a racially mixed woman, often Indian-African-white. In America, coloreds are blacks; in Zimbabwe, coloreds are their own race.
Angela noticed me noticing her. How could she not? I was the only male (a boy, regrettably) activated by her sexual boldness. But before she could feed me a little more excitement—lighting a cigarette, say, and sucking the smoke slowly—I was forced to leave with her stepson and go to Dairy Queen, where we used her money to blast at dumb asteroids and alien spaceships. Only the garden boy, cleaning the swimming pool on the other side of those French doors, had the pleasure of keeping watch on the jewel of Rhodesia. She was in the bar in her scandalous attire smoking a cigarette as her husband fingered and fussed with the fine workings of his miniature factory.
Back when Rhodesia was in the middle of becoming Zimbabwe, and the bush war—the war leading to black independence, black rule, black power—was still not so close to the capital, there was a terror list run by the colonial government. This terror list was similar in some respects to the terror list in America today that prevents certain people from boarding planes. But the FBI's list has something that the Rhodesian one completely lacked: some breathing room. To be on the American terror list doesn't mean you're finished, game over, done for good, cooked through and through. Life is still possible. The Rhodesian list was another story altogether: One day, you are drinking a bucket of Chibuku on your favorite stone in the beer garden; the next day, all of the other drinkers find the stone is empty and, as drinking goes late into the night, refuses to be anything except empty. That's how people learned you were on the list. In America, you can live your whole life without anyone knowing you are on a list. And if you live and die with no idea that you are on a list, what exactly is the problem?
When it was Rhodesia, you did your best not to be registered as an enemy of the state. But even if you did your best, sometimes it just was not enough—to be on that list did not necessarily mean you were a man or woman fighting the Europeans for the liberation of Africa, not necessarily a terrorist. It could simply mean you stepped on the wrong toes during the day-to-day walk of your life.
You see how this happens? One day you are presented with a lovely vision: a comely woman pounding maize in the front yard of a compound, pounding hard seeds into a fine powder, pounding with her whole body—up and down, up and down. And you see her sweat, see her soaked shirt, see her bouncing breasts—and she sees you seeing these amazing things of hers. And her husband is still at the factory (making mattresses or whatever). And your wife is still cooking dinner and thinking you are at the beer garden—the bus stops in the Africans-only townships are conveniently located next to beer gardens—because the beer garden is the place you almost always visit after a day of work on the white side of town (cleaning swimming pools or whatever). Well, something just happens. What's life after all? It's happening! But some neighbor happens to see what's what, and the man of the woman you enjoyed so much soon learns all about it at the bar—beer and loose lips is a friendship that will never be broken. But he can't kill you, because where exactly is there a crime in enjoying another man's wife? So he has to go back to the factory near Mbare and make bedsprings while his mind is eaten by the voracious vision of you ravishing his young wife.
Finally, it gets too much, and so he reports to the government that you have done something terrible, or that you plan to, that you are a terrorist, and you get put on that terrible list, and soon you disappear. And everyone at the beer garden knows why you disappeared. Everyone hears a more-or-less reliable version of the story and shakes their heads in sadness. What can anyone do? This is a time of war.
You think I'm imagining these things? You think a rock fell out of the sky or something, hit my head, and this scenario suddenly appeared in the fishbowl of my mind? My father's uncle, let's call him Ability Mutasa, a flesh-and-bone human being, was the victim of this terrible practice. I'm telling you. He wound up on a list in 1978, was soon after killed, and his body was not found until 1992. His grave was in the government records: "Buried here is a known terrorist," it said, according to my father. Who put him on the list? His own wife, my friend. Why did she do such a thing? Because he was sterile; he could not make her stomach big. And how can that even be a reason for killing your husband? It's a story and a half.
What happened is this: When my father's aunt—let's call her Chipo (which means "gift" in Shona)—discovered that Ability's sperm could do nothing but swim around, she decided that another man should join in their marriage. Ability could not challenge this decision. Either produce or shut up. He had to shut up. The person Chipo selected for this new opening, the second husband, was a man we shall call Benard, a good friend of the family and an outstanding human being. He was unmarried, lived in Bulawayo, and worked at an electronics factory assembling radios and TV sets. He happily accepted the offer to be the second husband. Now, Benard was not exactly being a hero here—you know what I mean? Chipo was not hard on the eyes. You did not need several beers to translate her looks into something respectable. Benard was doing this favor because it was an easy one to do. Get the picture? Good. So Ability would be the face of the marriage and Benard the inside man.
Sure enough, it worked. Chipo did not have just one but four kids. This Benard was potent! It seemed all she had to do was hold his hand and she was pregnant. But you know, she still loved her useless husband and never once acted like the children were not his. The boys and girls came from Ability, as far as the world was concerned—that was always her story, and she was faithful to it. Indeed, all of the women in her section of the township saw her as having everything that a woman could ever want—healthy children, a packed pantry, and a marriage made of stone. Rhodesia had been good to her.
Years passed and everything was going fine, fine. Good money was being made and furniture was growing in the living room—a new plate cabinet, a new radio, a TV to watch the popular shows on the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation. The war was still far from over (the TV news people reported things like Air Rhodesia planes being shot out of the sky by terrorists), but Chipo was unaffected. It was life as usual, day after day spent in the company of women who admired her success as a woman.
But things fell apart for my father's uncle when he started drinking too much.
Here is a saying I like very much: What is in the heart of a sober man is in the mouth of a drunk one. You already know how this story will end. I have given you too much information. But let's not stop just because the end is already in your head. This is what happened to Ability: He started drinking and drinking and telling people at the bar his shameful secret, that the kids in his house were not his but a friend's from Bulawayo. For so long, he had said nothing about it, kept his mouth shut; but the kids kept calling him baba (father), and really he wasn't their baba, he wasn't even related to them, and this conflict became a war in his mind. The truth wanted its independence from what was totally false. Do you see what I mean? War is always about getting your freedom from something.
People were amazed, and when they found out, they told other people the amazing truth about the children.
When my father's aunt learned that her husband was saying all of these humiliating things, she had only one way to stop him that was quick and would shut everybody up like that: Go to the government, put him on the list. Ability was finished in no time. Here today, gone tomorrow.
My father never proved that Chipo put Ability on the list, but is there another suspect you can think of? Someone who had a very good reason to get rid of him? Ability did not like the white government, but he was not a revolutionary. And he was not the only one who suddenly disappeared in the middle of a domestic mess. Unexplained domestic disappearances came to an end after the independence of the country. When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, lovers had to find new ways to solve their problems.