It was the time of day when shadows meet to dance. She sat tomb-like on the veranda one last time, nursing a mug of rooibos tea as the setting sun put on its pretty colors for her. She savored the pungent fragrance of night-blooming jasmine that had just begun to fill the air from the garden next door. For the first time in four years, she allowed herself to remember. To relive the memories she had buried deep in the shadows inside of her. Without bringing them into the light, there would be no release. No freedom. And she was determined to be free.
He had happened to her. A man. An event. A love. A war. He answered something deep inside of her that had lain dormant during her hard apprenticeship of childhood in rural Zimbabwe. A question she had not yet birthed that lay formless and foreboding in the recesses of her being. He was a time apart from time. A suspension of reality. His name was Mudiwa. Beloved. And she loved him in all his forms. She loved him with a simplicity and a sincerity that overtook her soul.
Fifteen years earlier, she had been born to a family that already had seven children. Her mother’s gaunt body, barely able to sustain the pregnancy, had prematurely ejected her into the world before she was ready to face its strife. Her father had recently taken a second wife so to her mother, she was everything. A sign that her womanhood was still alive. A fluttering hope for a better tomorrow. Her mother had fought frantically to keep her alive, wrapping her in a tattered blanket in the sweltering heat. An exaggerated effort to protect her. An early training for a lifetime of suffocation and suffering.
Growing up in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe was a bitter-sweet maturing. Red mud and scarlet bougainvillea. A bleeding earth. Ground zero of creation. While boys made wire cars and played soccer in the dust with ingeniously creative materials formed into footballs, girls were ruling the world. Collecting firewood, carrying pails of water on their heads in astounding acts of balance and grace. A pageant of womanhood of which they were unaware. Heads wrapped in brightly coloured cloths like presents waiting to be unravelled. A mesmerizing performance of weariness and will-power. A complex femininity asphyxiated by repetitive cleaning, cooking, and generally making it possible for their families to survive on meagre resources. All this done with baby siblings strapped to their backs. There was no childhood for the girl child. Only chores and responsibilities that increased with age. Eyes that spoke of implausible endurance and an unyielding will to live for something better. Something brighter. Something more.
With his laugh that seemed to defy the world, Mudiwa had come into her life like a whirlwind. He was the cousin of her father’s friend who lived in Harare. Mudiwa was a mechanic who had grown tired of living as a bachelor. Why cook and clean for himself when he could easily acquire a wife and children to do it for him? He had returned to the village to look for a wife because educated urban women were expensive. Roora, the bride price, was calculated in accordance with the amount of money a girl’s parents had spent on her schooling. Mudiwa had no use for a wife with a degree. A clever woman would be difficult to control. Especially one that had tasted independence and would not allow her voice to be silenced any longer by men hiding behind so-called “tradition.” A rural wife thrust into city life would have to depend on her husband for everything. She would have no rights. No freedoms. No choice but to endure her husband’s rule, however tyrannical it may be.
At fifteen, she could have passed for someone a decade older. Real women have curves and she certainly fit the bill. A tiny waist and hips that swayed to the hypnotic rhythm of Africa. She was just entering her bloom and she was stunning. Mudiwa was visiting her father when she first saw him. Fancy city clothes, slick hair, and an overpowering cologne that oddly smelt like guavas fermented in the sun. An opiate for the masses. A hypnotic suggestion. He looked like something from a fancy magazine. When she knelt down beside him to greet him in the traditional fashion, he smiled down to her flashing dimples that bewitched her. Intoxicated her. Confused and thrilled her. With that one smile, he embodied all the things she yearned for deep in the night, lying on her straw mat keeping company with owls and hyenas. He was shiny and new, and in her world that was covered with dust and desolation, he was a beacon of hope that somewhere in the world there was more to life than what she had experienced. She did not speak to him as that would have been highly inappropriate. But, she watched him intently whenever she could do so discreetly. In his face she saw light and laughter. In him, she was able to dream.
It was her mother who realized first what was happening when Mudiwa repeated his visits to their house almost daily. He would bring small but much yearned for gifts such as sugar and Geisha bath soap. He had a devastating combination of charm and an air of danger that instantly captivated everyone around him. Recognizing Mudiwa’s actions as an unconventional courtship, whenever he was visiting, she would deliberately parade her daughter in front of him with excuses of offering him water to drink or a snack to eat. The fact that Mudiwa was more than a decade older than her daughter did not matter. He would flash his debilitating smile until she needed no convincing that he was the answer to all her aches and dreams for her beloved child.
Mudiwa focused his energy on wooing the parents instead of the daughter. That should have been a sign that something was amiss. But, even if she had been weary of this urban Casanova who had bulldozed his way into their lives, she did not have much of a choice in what was to come. A year before, she had spectacularly flunked her Zimbabwe Junior Certificate Exams and subsequently her father had stopped paying her school fees. She was educated enough for a girl with no prospects beyond village life. The only hope she had of escaping now was for a man to marry her and take her away to a better life. And what could be better than life in Harare?
So after a week of loitering around their homestead, when Mudiwa approached her family with roora, with all the passion and idiocy of youth, she eagerly agreed to be his wife. Instantly, her family became the envy of the whole village. A man from the city had chosen their daughter for a wife. A man from Harare who, in addition to the traditional bride price, brought them luxuries they had long forgotten. Honey, rice, and chocolate biscuits. Her father felt like a king. It was the only time in her life that she could remember him smiling at her with something akin to pride. Though she feared that she was not posh enough for Mudiwa, she was thrilled that at the age of fifteen, she would do what no one in her family had done before. Move to Harare. To city life. To glory.
When she boarded the bus to Harare in her pink floral dress and lime green shoes Mudiwa had bought for her as a wedding present, she felt like a princess. All her extended family came to see her off, ululating in excitement and in jealousy. How was it that she, of all the girls in their village, had been chosen by this man for a life that they had all dreamed of but thought was out of reach?
On the bus, Mudiwa bought her Willard’s Salt & Vinegar potato crisps and a bottle of Fanta from the vendors that hawked their wares at the windows of stationary vehicles. When he removed the bottle top with his teeth, the fizz bubbled over onto his lap and they both burst into laughter simultaneously. She felt so much joy swelling in her heart, she thought she would burst. On the journey to Harare, as he described his four-roomed house in a neighbourhood called Waterfalls, she could hardly imagine herself living in such luxury. “Waterfalls.” Running water and flushable toilets. A palace for her to rule. An African fairytale.
For the first year of her marriage, she was happier than she had ever dreamed was possible. Mudiwa would go to work in the morning and she would stay at home to clean, and polish, and cook for him. Taking care of his every need and whim. She lived for him. Practically dancing for joy when he came home to her at night. There were signs, but she chose to ignore them. She was far too happy to dwell on gloomy thoughts.
Mudiwa showered her with more gifts than she knew what to do with. Her previous wardrobe had consisted of one outfit that was her “best dress.” A faded paisley skirt and a stained yellow blouse that she had inherited from one of her older cousins. But, for all his generosity, Mudiwa was possessive of her in a way that disconcerted her. He did not allow her to explore the city on her own. When he was at work she was confined to the house. At first she thought he was protecting her. That he was afraid that she would get lost or hurt. She thought it was sweet. But, in time, she realized that he did not trust her. Talking to neighbors, particularly men, was out of the question. If she needed any groceries she had to make a list for him and he would bring them to her. Only when she was glued to his side was she allowed to experience Harare and to meet new people.
Secretly she longed for more. For friends and fellowship outside the relationships that Mudiwa allowed her to have under his supervision. But, was she really in a position to complain? He had plucked her out of poverty and brought her to the city. He had given her a roof over her head, three meals a day, and beautiful clothes to wear. If anything, she should be grateful. And she was. But.
As the months turned into a year and she still hadn’t conceived a child for him, she could feel a storm brewing between her and her husband. Being an African wife, there was hardly any appropriate way for her to bring up the subject with Mudiwa. It was the elephant in the room that began to stifle her in her own house. Silence that screamed at her so loud she began to shrink into herself. Child-bearing was a woman’s worry. It was her duty. Her responsibility. The one thing that every woman should be able to do and she was failing to do it. Whether the problem lay with her or with him made no difference. The blame would be on her and it frightened her.
She loved Mudiwa more than anything in the world, but, deep down in her heart, when she was brutally honest with herself, she knew that she did not mean as much to him. All the pretty dresses he bought for her, the perfume, the jewellery, did not make up for that intangible love that every new bride longs for. She was not at all sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that if the world crashed around them, he would be there to hold her hand.
The longer it took for her to conceive, the more irritable he became with her. A defective wife. The one thing she couldn’t do cancelled out everything else she did do for him. She couldn’t make it right and he punished her for it. Passive-aggressively at first. Coming home late with no explanations. Giving her the silent treatment as he hid behind the morning newspaper. Refusing to eat the food she cooked for him.
She became depressed and nervous. A prisoner of her love for him. A hostage in his home. And yes, it was his home, not hers. She knew that now. She knew how foolish she had been to believe that a man she hardly knew, a man like Mudiwa, would fall in love with a rural girl like her who had flunked out of school and had no cent to her name. She was a cheap bride. Free labor. An object he could dress up to boost his status among his friends.
The beatings began suddenly and severely. He beat her if she didn’t iron his shirt just so. He beat her if she made his sadza too thick. Or too thin. He beat because being around someone more miserable than him made him feel better about himself. Her very existence annoyed him to the point of physical abuse. He had paid for her. She was his to do with as he pleased. He felt no remorse. Fists of frustration. Pounding. Pounding. Pounding. Man at his very worst. Vicious and unforgiving. The power of his will flashing in his eyes like a demon. A face like thunder. A hurricane of brutality. A madman unleashed.
Fraught with a desire to please him, she became a chameleon, changing her colors according to his mood swings. A masquerade of lunacy. Self obliterating servitude. A mental tyranny from which there was no escape. She absorbed his pain, his violence, his failures. Paroxysms of agony no words could describe. He drove them into her with his fists almost daily. They festered in the darkness deep inside of her. Tumors of despair and desperation. A cancerous plague incubating inside her.
She contemplated leaving many times. Packing a bag and going home to her mother. In the hustle and bustle of the city, she missed the woeful beauty of the mountains. The echoing silence of the countryside. Africa. Easy and unhurried. She had lived in Eden and she didn’t know it.
Mudiwa could also be heartbreakingly sweet when it suited him. Taking her to lunch at Chicken-Inn. Or to have photos taken of them in Harare Gardens when the jacarandas were in bloom. Or to watch a movie at the Rainbow cinema when he was feeling extraordinarily generous. She lived for those days when he treated her with common decency. To her, in contrast to his usual beastly behaviour, it felt like epic love. They would hold hands and she would giggle. He may have been pretending, or manipulating her, or both, but to her, it was real. It was happiness. It was truth. Chakafukidza dzimba matenga. Every house is covered by a roof and only those living in truly know what goes on inside. Anyone passing the house on the street on these bright days would believe them to be true sweethearts. Wearing the attractive dresses and gleaming shoes he bought her, usually as a gift of appeasement after the more severe beatings, she remained hopeful.
But, it was always short-lived.
She had to leave. It was now or never. She had no money and no prospects. But she didn’t care. Going home was not an option. Her father would most likely beat her and send her back to her husband. She would have to get a job, probably as a maid. At least then, she would be paid instead of beaten for scrubbing the toilet. Besides, it was only a matter of time before Mudiwa had a “small house.” The plague on Zimbabwean wives. Polygamy at its worst. Another woman. A fertile wife. Another family which she would know of but was never allowed to mention.
Three years of incessant, imprisoning abuse. Identifying with and caring for her captor in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. “I must obey! I must obey!” Her mantra of madness. A survival tactic. Mistaking his manipulative gestures as kindness and love. An unconscious bid to be loved in return. Defending his insanity in an attempt to make sense of her captivity. Empathy. Sympathy. Psychosis. Brushing off the uneven distribution of power in their “relationship.” Oscillating between love and hate. Fear and safety. Determination and despair. A traumatic bond. A tragic love.
She had to go while she still had enough dignity to leave. So, she cleaned the house one last time. Ironed his shirts so he would have something to wear to work the next day. Prepared his supper so he wouldn’t go hungry when he got home that night. She couldn’t quite bring herself to stop caring. To stop fearing.
And then she sat on the veranda, watching the sunset and drinking rooibos tea. Her suitcase packed with only the bare necessities. She left behind all the trinkets he had bought her. They were symbols of her incarceration which she knew she had to shed if she was truly going to break free. More than likely she would never be able to afford such expensive things again. But, life was more than pretty clothes and fancy shoes. She would be poor. But, she would be free.
Ironically, Mudiwa was both the gravitational force that that had trapped her in his house for so long, and the repelling drive that ultimately propelled her to break free. He would never lay a hand on her again. Her name was Sekai. Laugh. And as she rinsed her mug, picked up her suitcase, and finally walked away from her prison, she laughed at him for the first time ever. He was a coward. A cowering child hulking around in a man’s body. She laughed from the depths of her soul. The joyful cackle of a woman unchained.
Metamorphosis. A new breed of woman taking flight.