By Austin Kaluba (Zambia)
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Maria kept looking at the clock on the wall of the kitchen. She could feel her heartbeat which was somehow in tune with the ticking of the clock. She had already prepared chicken stew just the way her husband liked it. She put a pot on the stove to cook sadza ( thick maize porridge ) She glanced at the clock again and realised she only had fifteen minutes to finish preparing the meal. Tapiwa raved mad if the meal was not ready in time. As she stirred the thickening sadza with practised motions, she read a story on Zimbabwe from an open page of The Guardian.
The story was about ox-drawn ambulances that were being used in many
parts of rural Zimbabwe to transport the sick to hospital. The story had a pathetic picture of a skeletally thin man lying on a stretcher. His ribs stuck out of his chest like an accordion.
Maria pitied her country and its people and considered herself lucky to
have escaped the grinding poverty by coming to England.
But living a relatively peaceful life in England, where she didn’t have
to worry about daily increases of food prices, shortage of fuel and
electricity, as was the case in Zimbabwe, was dampened by the cruel
truth in her subconscious – her marital problems.
They lived in a two-bedroomed house in Hatfield. It was quite plush,
apart from the junk thrown by fly tippers in a derelict ground at the
back of her house. Broken baby push chairs, sofas, a half-burnt Yamaha
motor bike, soiled and mouldy boots, piles of wood left from some
construction sites, all found their way to that spot.
The junk had become as imbedded in her mind as her marital
predicament. It was part of their beautiful home; blending ugliness and
beauty. She sometimes wondered whether she should act on her friend, Nancy’s advice, to request being re-housed on the grounds that it was
dangerous for her five year old daughter, Chichi, to be exposed to all
sorts of junk in the backyard.
Chichi, who had been sleeping peacefully on the sofa, moaned and moved about in her sleep. She was a picture of innocence, a book of fairy tales she had been reading rising and falling with her breathing. She turned over in her sleep rubbing her tiny fist in her eyes. The book fell on
the floor prompting her to open her eyes briefly. Maria picked it up and looked at the cover. It was the story of Sleeping Beauty.
She lifted her up gently and took her to her bedroom upstairs.
After laying the child to sleep, she glanced at the watch and realised
that it was nearly half past twelve. She rushed downstairs to finish
preparing the meal. Her heart was still bumping.
Just as she finished preparing the sadza, she heard a car pull up
outside. Her heart-beat quickened. She heard the back door
opening, quietly, as her husband was wont to.
Moments later,Tapiwa was towering over her, watching her
silently, without a word of greeting. His squint, frog eyes narrower than usual. He settled on the dining table, a far away look shrouding his dark face.
“How was work?” She greeted him in English.
“OK,” he replied sullenly in Shona, as he took off his
hi Vis lemon jacket.
The voice made her shudder. She stiffened.
Maria sensed that he was in one of his foul moods and thought of leaving
him alone. She wanted to go upstairs but quickly realised that usually
when he was in such a mood, he wanted to be with her to diffuse the
tension that his demons brewed.
Maria brought a tray with two plates on it; one
for sadza and the other of chicken stew. She placed the tray on the
table and stole a glance at his grumpy face. She thought he looked like
a man twice his age.
“Where is Chichi?” he asked without looking up from his meal.
“Has she eaten?”
“Yes, she has.”
“And you?” he enquired pointing at her with a fistful of sadza.
“I have eaten too,” she answered sensing a storm. She pulled a chair
and sat down facing him.
He grunted and concentrated on his food; stuffing lumps of sadza into
his mouth and swallowing with a great deal of noise.
Halfway through his meal, he raised his head and regarded Maria, as
though he had just remembered that she was at the table with him. and
half-sarcastically and half-jokingly commented: ' “Heh, you have become
a proper English woman in a black skin, hey?” he said accusingly. His smile was an implant “You no longer want to eat with your husband as our culture demands. You want to eat alone with your child.”
“What’s wrong with me eating alone?” Maria bleated. “And remember, it is
our child not my child.” She had never been so forthright in any
conversation with her husband.
He stopped chewing and stared at her. “You could never have spoken to me
in such a manner back home. The British culture has taught you to answer
your husband so cheekily!” he shouted.
“What is cheeky about reminding you that Chichi is our child?” she
asked, this time lowering her voice, trying to sound contrite.
“What is wrong with answering back when your husband is talking?” he
repeated the question mockingly. Maria kept quiet.
He finished his meal and switched on the TV set. He changed channel
after channel till he settled on a boxing match. He moved his head at the landing of each punch from the two boxers.
She hated finding herself in such a marital trap. She had thought long
and hard about how she could end her miserable marriage. But something
always held her back; not least of all the fear of shaming her family
Tapiwa had been like a leech in her life.
She had met him while she was teaching in Harare. Tapiwa was working as
an accountant for Zimbabwe Airlines.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But she had gradually liked him.
Perhaps it was because he reminded her of her late father.
Like her father, Tapiwa was tall, dark and muscular. But there, the
similarities ended. Her father had an easy going personality and enjoyed
jokes. Tapiwa on the other hand had a reserved personality and seemed to
go through life suspecting that everybody was his enemy, or somehow
disapproved of him.
Maria was the opposite of the satyr she had married; a light skinned woman with aquiline features and high, dimpled cheeks. She had lively clear eyes and a sparkling personality like her mothers’.
Within months of marrying Tapiwa, she realised she had made a grave mistake. Not only was she alarmed by how madly jealous and possessive, he was; his temper was unpredictable. At first she thought she was going to sort
out her cantankerous husband’s swing moods by being attentive to his
needs and showing him how much she loved him.
Then it transpired to Maria that Tapiwa had two loves in his life; his
job and his wife. She realised that he wanted to cocoon himself in a
world in which Maria and his job didn’t blend with anything else. He had
to be the centre of that world otherwise he felt threatened.
She realised the extent of his jealous (nature) when he beat her up,
just for talking to a man who was her former classmate!
The beating had left her with a black eye, two loose teeth and a very
damaged ego. What annoyed her even more was the attitude of the
policemen when she went to the local police station to report the
One policeman had out-rightly told her that they could not intervene in
a domestic affair, even though she had a swollen face!
Even the women neighbours were of little help. She remembered
overhearing one woman telling her friend that modern wives lacked the
stamina of their mothers who could take blows with smiling faces.
To prove their point, the women had (sang-sung) a popular marriage
counselling song in Shona. Maria remembered the lines:
Listen you untutored whore
The husband is your lord and protector
Someday, he can give you loving slaps
Don't cry out and wake the neighbourhood.
It is your silence we respect, not your howling
Loving slaps strengthen the marriage
loving slaps, that is the name of the game.
Strangely, Maria found herself thinking back to that first beating, as
Tapiwa watched the boxing.
She smiled at the words of the songs. She quickly realised that her
husband was watching her. “Why are you smiling to yourself?” he
demanded. “I was only thinking aloud,” she said meekly.
“What’s thinking aloud?” he asked sarcastically. She ignored the
question and withdrew into her own world.
Tapiwa continued watching the boxing match. She realised that she was
slowly but surely becoming aware of her predicament and heading towards
finding a lasting solution. Later, she went to bed, leaving him glued to
Maria was woken by (the) alarm which she had set at 2 PM. She
was working the afternoon shift. She rushed upstairs to prepare herself.
Twenty minutes later, she came downstairs and bade farewell to Tapiwa
who was still engrossed in watching TV.
She worked in Stevenage as a carer at Blue Pines Home. She usually used
the bus to go to work because Tapiwa was rarely in the mood to drive her
At the home, there was little to do during the early hours of the afternoon shifts
because by that time the residents had been bathed and fed.
After the other carer a Jamaican handed over duties, she sat in the living room with the residents. There was Kate Morrison, who was in her early 20's.
Kate had cerebral palsy. Then there was Richard Morton who was in his
early 40's but looked younger.
Richard was severely disabled and was wheelchair-bound. He had a
tendency to hit out at objects; sometimes hurting himself. The other
service user was Sally Brown, who was beautiful save for her deformed
legs. Sally was also wheelchair-bound but her mental disability was not
very severe. She kept repeating sentences.
Maria had seen flashes of normalcy in Sally's face from time to time.
She looked at Maria closely and smiled. She was Maria's favourite resident. Maria returned the smile. She heard a car pull up outside. It was Nancy, a fellow Zimbabwean who was also doing a late shift. Nancy and Maria arrived in Britain around the same time. She ambled in enveloped in her newest perfume. She took off her coat exposing a skirt that could have suited a younger girl. Her bottom could have rivalled the Hottentot Venus
and shook like hardening jelly when she walked. She was
dark and plain.
“I am late. Traffic jams.”
Maria kept quiet.
Nancy had given the same excuse time and again for her lateness. It
was always traffic jams or being delayed at a salon.
After she settled down, the two women started chatting about the
situation back home in Zimbabwe. Nancy always talked non-stop about the
situation in her home country. “Did you read the story about the
ox-drawn ambulances, Maria?” she asked laughing.
“I did,” Maria answered suppressing laughter. “Soon, old Bob himself
will be driven by oxen,” She laughed at her own joke hitting her fat hands on her thighs. Maria noticed she had a tattoo of an anchor on her right arm.
“How do you chase white farmers from the country just like that?” Nancy
commented steadying Richard who had started hitting the side of his
wheel chair vigorously.
“Old Bob thinks war veterans are better than white farmers to run the
farms,” Maria said.
Suddenly Nancy changed the subject. “How is Tapiwa?” she asked looking
at her friend in the eyes.
“Grumpy as ever,” Maria replied.
“That one will never change,” Nancy said.
Maria sighed. “I thought Britain would change him,” she said. “But
Britain seems to be making him worse. Maybe it is the odd jobs he is
doing and the cold weather.”
“Does he still beat you?” Nancy asked half-mocking and half-light
hearted as if blaming Maria for letting herself be beaten.
Maria started stroking Sally's hand lovingly. She looked
at her watch.
“Heh Nancy, I have just remembered. We need to cut vegetables for
supper. Let’s move the three to the kitchen,” she said and stood up. As
the two women worked, they chatted. They heard the two carers upstairs
moving things. They were also preparing supper for the four service
Later after finishing work, Nancy who lived in St Albans gave Maria a
lift to Hatfield. On the way, Nancy suggested they pass through a
friend's place who had thrown a party in Welwyn Garden City.
Maria found herself agreeing to spend some time at the party. They
arrived at the party which was already teeming with people. Many were
Zimbabweans who were with their wives or girlfriends.
Maria's heart started beating fast. She knew she would be late home and
she had no plausible explanation to give her husband. A number of her
old friends who had not met her for a long time were happy to see her.
‘Makadi, makadi - good evening,’ they greeted her with a hug or a kiss on the cheek.
Nancy offered her a glass of red wine and was amused by the way her friend
held it. She held it as if it contained hemlock.
Maria took a sip. She found the wine sweet and warming.
Someone put Olive Mutukudzi's CD on and the party goers started
dancing. Some sang along to the words in Shona. The words were about a
big-headed man who wanted to grab everything for himself. Two men who
had been drinking silently in the corner started arguing about the
message in the song.
One man said the lyrics had a hidden message and were lampooning Mugabe
for taking Zimbabwe as his property.
Another man objected to that interpretation and the argument built up
into a fearsome crescendo.
Nancy gave Maria another glass of wine under protests. She wanted to go
home but Nancy insisted they stay a little bit longer. Maria had only
ever drank wine during meal times when she took residents out for
By the time they left the party, it was well past midnight.
Maria was feeling light hearted although deep down she was uneasy about
going home so late.
Nancy dropped her at her house. “Maita basa -thank you,” she said and
staggered to the house.
She opened the door and found Tapiwa in the living room watching T.V. He
was watching a documentary on BBC four. It was about illegal immigrants.
There were four empty cans of beer on the floor.
He had been drinking. His eyes were raw and red. His face had a
distant look like he could not easily see her. He looked like he had
been anxiously waiting for her for a long time. He quickly turned off
the TV and straightened himself to face Maria who was about to go
upstairs. “Maria, where have you been all this time?” he demanded
forcing her to stop in her tracks.
“I was, I was ,waaa..,' she stammered, and got annoyed at the fear that
“See, I have caught you. You whore!'
“But let me..,”
“Let me what?” Tapiwa mocked moving towards her unsteadily. He swung a
fist and caught Maria flush on her jaw, sending her staggering
backwards. She made no effort to defend herself.
The blows caught her on the chest, her face, all over the body. She
groaned and began to cough violently. She then vomited the wine she had
taken. When Tapiwa smelled the wine, he doubled his blows.
Maria had long stopped feeling pain. In her pain she resolved that
enough was enough. This time he would not get away with it, she
He went upstairs to sleep. She remained curled on the floor.
Surprisingly, she drifted into deep foetal position.
She dreamt her husband was creeping towards her with a hammer. She
quickly got up and rushed to the kitchen where she grabbed a knife. She
stabbed him in the heart and twisted the knife. He fell to the ground
She woke up screaming.
It was dawn. She heard water running in the bathroom. Tapiwa was
bathing, ready to go to work. Maria was off that day. She stood
up. Her body was aching all over. She went upstairs to Chichi's bedroom.
The child was still sleeping peacefully.
On the way to the main bedroom, she met Tapiwa coming out of the
bathroom. There was an uncomfortable tension.
“What are you doing in Chichi's bedroom, you whore?” he asked shaking
water from his head.
“I am not a whore and you know it!” she answered sharply, staring boldly
at him. He was surprised at her boldness.
“You did not tell me what kept you away last night,” he said entering
the bedroom. She followed him without answering.
“I wish I had not come to this bloody country. Everything here stinks,”
Tapiwa raved. “Look at the whoring going on here among our women. Look
at the weather, the hard work, the racism.”
“Why can't you go home to your country if you are fed up with England?”
Maria challenged him.
Again she was surprised like him at what was driving her to be so bold.
Tapiwa finished dressing and went out. She heard the car start and drive
away. She went to the bathroom and examined her face in the mirror. She
had a black eye and her hair was unkempt.
She took a hot shower before going to bed. When she woke up she heard
Chichi coughing in her bedroom. She met her at the door. The child was
rubbing her sleepy eyes. Her daughter looked at her mother, her smooth face stiffened when she saw a black eye.
‘What happened to your eye mummy?’
Maria ignored her question lifted her up. She felt tears welling in her eyes. Maria hugged her daughter. “Chichi.
We will be leaving this place soon dear,” she whispered kissing her on the
“Where are we going mummy?” she asked. Realising that Chichi
probably thought the whole family would be moving out, Maria cut the
Life became a nightmare for both Maria and Tapiwa after the beating.
They became strangers.
The following Sunday Maria took Chichi to church without talking to her
husband who was watching a football match between Liverpool and
Chelsea on television.
The church service at the Redeemed Church was full. The
Nigerian preacher Pastor Nwanko was preaching about goals in life.
“Don't live a targetless life like gentiles” the Pastor exclaimed. “Ours
is a spiritual journey brothers and sisters. It is a journey full of
snares and traps. It is not for the weak-hearted. It is not by accident
that we came here to England. Our God is above all obstacles in life. He
is above racism. He is above the Home Office that is always out to
deport us. He is above failure, job losses, marital problems, financial
problems. Fear the giant-mover, not the giant. God, Jehovah Jireh is our
giant-mover. The problem with us brothers and sisters is that we fear
Goliath and not David who slew him with a stone from the sling. We are
like Peter, who looked at the storm instead of focusing his eyes on the
Lord. What is your vision my brother? What is your goal my sister?”
He pranced up and down the stage raising the emotions of the
congregation with him. Maria was engrossed by the preaching. She
remembered how God had answered her prayers by enabling her to come to
England; one of her cherished dreams. Now despite her misgivings about
divorcing, Maria believed her second vision was about to be realised.
Outside the church, she felt light like a new being. She felt like Saul
when he turned to Paul on the road to Damascus. The scales of fear and
ignorance had fallen from her eyes. She was now a free being devoid of
fear that had held her captive in a loveless marriage. She felt she had
wasted 10 long years loving a man who did not care for her feelings.
That night she slept lightly. She listened to Tapiwa breathing heavily
beside her. She recounted the realities of her life: her domination by a grumpy husband,
retrogressive traditions and attitudes that refused to die, a
chauvinistic society that looked down on women, unrealised ambitions, a
lifetime of living a lie, of being meek and depressed in a marital
She had never confided fully to anyone about her sad existence. Even
Nancy, her best friend had only known half-truths about what she was
enduring with her husband.
She remembered when she was young in her home village, her grandmother
who was a svikiro- spiritual medium - had read her future and sadly told
her that she would only attain happiness after great suffering.
The memory frightened her.
She had dismissed it as fantasy after becoming a Christian. True
Christians considered svikiros as devil's agents.
She brushed the memory aside. The more she recounted the injustices she
had endured at the hands of her husband, the more the resolve to leave
him grew stronger.
She made prior arrangements to stay at Nancy's place with Chichi until
she found accommodation for herself. Her husband was not only a cruel
man but a bulwark to her vision of being independent. She considered him
old-fashioned. She cursed herself for not making the decision to leave
The next morning, after Tapiwa had left for work as usual, Maria
gathered her belongings and Chichi’s clothes. She felt light and elated as
she packed the three huge suitcases she had bought for the job. She
packed hurriedly before calling a mini cab. The Muslim taxi driver who
came around helped her to pack her suitcases into the boot. Chichi was
skipping about happy at the prospect of moving house.
The Muslim driver had a long, hungry face and hairy hands. He wore a skull cap that made him look pious like some monk in a monastery trying to unravel the mysteries of life. He was playing oriental music which was characterised by chanting and percussion.
Maria looked around the yard and at the neighbouring houses as she
locked the door. “Come on mummy, lets go!” shouted Chichi who was
already seated on the back seat.
Maria threw the bunch of key through the letter slot, sighed and turned
towards the mini cab.
When the taxi pulled away, she didn’t look back. The clouds that had covered the skies early in the morning started clearing exposing the sun. Maria wondered at how erratic British weather was. She dozed off and saw her grandmother, the svikiro, whispering to her. Her face was gnarled and haggard. She was smiling at Maria as if happy that her granddaughter had finally taken the step she had long advocated.