The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah: Book Review
In The Book of Memory, an albino woman named Memory is languishing in a maximum security prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been tried and convicted of murder.
As part of her appeal, her lawyer insists that she write down what happened; that is, the events that led to the killing of her adoptive father, Lloyd Hendricks.
But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers?
Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between past and present, the 2009 Guardian First Book Award-winning writer Petina Gappah weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate, and the treachery of memory
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The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah: Book Extract
1468 Mharapara Street
The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.
I say my father and mother, but it was really my mother. I see them now as I saw them on the day we first met Lloyd. They are in the clothes that they wore to church on Sundays and when we went to town for window-shopping, because if you are going to hand your daughter over to a perfect stranger, you need to look your best.
My mother wears a white dress with big red poppies all over it. Around her waist is a cloth belt in the same material, and on her head a red hat with a white plastic flower on it. Her shoes and bag are white. My father is in a safari suit whose colour I can no longer remember. Or perhaps it wasn’t a safari suit at all that he wore, and I have only put him in one because it is what all the men wore in those days. His hair shines with Brylcreem.
It was a happy day for me. I wore my favourite dress, a white lacy dress with a purple sash, my Christmas dress from the year before. I was in town, far from the torments of my school-playground nemesis, Nhau, who tormented me as much at home as at school because he lived on our street. I was in town with my father, who held my hand as we walked. I was happiest about this, that I had him to myself, with one sister at school and the other recently dead.
To crown my joy, a white woman in the chocolate section of the department store came up to us as we moved towards the lifts. She wore glasses with frames that elongated upwards into points on each side of her face, giving her eyes a distorted look, as though I were seeing them through the milk bottles, the gold- and silver-topped ones, that we bought at the shops. ‘She looks like an angel; isn’t she an angel?’ she said. She gave me a dollar coin. It felt large and unfamiliar in my hand.
That brings with it another, earlier memory, of the twenty-five-cent coin that a nurse gave me when I cried hard after an injection at Gomo, the government hospital for the poor. I had bought sweets, which Nhau persuaded me to plant in the street outside his house. They would grow into a large sweet tree, he said.
From the chocolate section on the ground floor, we walked to the lift. A man in a maroon uniform with a large scar running down his face announced each floor as we reached it. ‘Third floor: children’s toys, children’s clothes and tearoom,’ he said as we left the lift.
My parents and I sat on one side of a booth. A bee hovered over my glass of Cherry Plum before toppling into the fizzy purple drink. It tried to fly out but its wings were wet and heavy and it floundered in the bubbles. And there was ice cream to go with the Cherry Plum, an elaborate sundae that Lloyd bought for me – Lloyd was on the other side of the booth – complete with a whole banana and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands.
I remember, too, the first words that Lloyd said to me. ‘Speak, Mnemosyne,’ he said.
I had no way of knowing then that Lloyd was teasing me, or that Mnemosyne was another word for my name, Memory. But perhaps I am confusing this with the second day that I saw him, the day he walked me to his car and into my new life.
I could also start by telling you all about Lloyd. I could start by telling you that I did not kill him. ‘Murder,’ said the prosecutor who laid out the case against me at the High Court, ‘is the unlawful and intentional killing of a human being who was alive at the time.’
After the police came for me on the night he died, after they arrested me and took me to the police station at Highlands, after I had spent three days without food or drink, after I had wept myself hoarse and my marrow dry – for Lloyd, I told myself, but really it was the fear – and after the dreams started coming again, I told them what they wanted to hear.
Their disbelief exploded in bursts of laughter. ‘Just tell us the real truth. You were his girlfriend and he was your boyfriend. He was your sugar daddy. Just tell us the truth, that you killed him for the money.’
It is strange, the inconsequential thoughts that come at a time like that. As I looked at the constable who headed my interrogation, I noticed that his jutting-out eyes gave him the staring effect of a drunken gargoyle on a public building. ‘Or maybe he made you do funny things to him in bed? This is a serious case, this one, it is no laughing matter.’
His laughter erupted thickly into the room. Two large dimples appeared in his cheeks, producing a startling transformation. The gargoyle had become a cherub.
‘And it was the money, isn’t it. They have too much, these whites,’ said his partner, a stocky woman in a faded uniform that seemed ready to burst with every movement she made. A button had already fallen from its place on her tunic.
I could not stop looking at the pink plastic rollers in her hair. Even in my distress, the orphaned thought came to me that surely, no one made plastic rollers like those any more, the spiky ones that attach themselves to your hair together with sharp plastic pokers.
‘A nice-looking young woman like you,’ she said. ‘You are not so bad-looking but for the, well, you know. You certainly know how to take care of yourself; I must give you that. But honestly, why else would you live with a white man like that, alone, just the two of you alone in that big house?’
She dug her right thumb into her left nostril as she spoke.
I repeated what I had already told them. ‘I lived with Lloyd Hendricks because my parents sold me to him as a child.’
Even as I said it, I knew that no one would believe me, and why should they, when I could hardly believe it myself, when I had struggled to understand it all my life. From the moment I saw my mother stuff the money that Lloyd had given her into her bra, from the moment after Lloyd shut the door of his car on me, I have wondered how my parents could have brought themselves to do it.
‘My parents sold me to him,’ I repeated.
Officer Rollers looked at Officer Dimples and laughed.
‘What is she talking?’ she said. With her index finger, she flicked dried mucus from her thumb. ‘We do not sell children in this country,’ she said. ‘What are you talking?’
There was a loud scrape as she pushed her chair back from the table to walk out of the room. Her voice came back to us from down the corridor. ‘Huyai mundinzwirewo zvirimuno.’
At her invitation, the room swarmed with officers. As they crowded around me with their mocking laughter and loud voices, I knew that there would be no convincing them. And if they did not believe the truth of this basic fact, how could I convince them of how he had actually died? What imaginative powers did they possess, these men and women in their brown-and-grey uniforms, this woman in her strained seams and pink rollers, this man who leered as he imagined funny things with white sugar daddies, what could make them see the horror of the moments that followed after I found Lloyd dead?
Lloyd rarely talked openly about how I came to live with him. When he spoke of it at all, it was always in euphemisms. He spoke of ‘taking me in’, of ‘giving me a home’, the good-hearted rich man taking in the poor black child, the cheerful Cheeryble giving room and board to an ungrateful Dickensian orphan. Except that it was really a case of the white man buying the black child, apart, of course, from the ‘well, you know’, as Officer Rollers called it, the condition that makes me black but not black, white but not white. That is how it was, and I will tell you all about it.
I should feel afraid. I should wake in the night, soaked in sweat from fearful dreams. I should have palpitations, no appetite and endless runs.
I have felt afraid. In those early days, as I awaited the trial and bail was denied, I shared a cell with Mavis Munongwa, the only other woman who is here for murder. That was before I got my own cell.
I covered my ears as Mavis screamed out the names of the children that she had killed. I was sometimes afraid to close my eyes and go to sleep. But even then, fear did not hold me completely to itself. I was insulated by my sense that none of this was real. That none of this was true. That it was too preposterous to be real.
I still feel afraid now, sometimes, but it is mostly in my dreams that fear comes to me and I find myself drowning before I startle myself awake. Outside of those dreams, I sleep well, or as well as I can on a prison-issue bed in a cell whose dimensions fall short of those prescribed by international treaties on the sagacious and humane treatment of the prisoner. I eat well, or as well as one can eat when the food is as bad as it is here.
Mostly, I just feel bored. You do something often enough, even something like waiting for your own death, and it too becomes routine.
I am writing this in my cell because Loveness has allowed me to take the notebooks and pens back with me. It has been three weeks since you gave me the notebooks and I started writing. You were my first visitor from the outside. And you were certainly the first visitor that any of us have ever had from overseas. Even here in Chikurubi, as in the rest of Zimbabwe, we value above all else the things that come from outside ourselves. Well, maybe not Synodia, the head guard.
They talked about you after I left, Loveness and Synodia. They were perplexed as to why a white journalism woman, as Loveness called you, would come all the way from America just to talk to a murderer like me. Synodia snatched from me the card that you left behind, and read your name and address as though they were lies that I had made up just to annoy her. ‘Linda Carter,’ she said as she read your card with her thumb over it. ‘Who is this Linda Carter?’
‘It’s Melinda Carter,’ I said. ‘She is a journalist who lives in Washington, in America.’
Synodia twisted her face into a moue of disbelief. ‘Pwelinda, Pwelinda,’ she said, and flung the card back at me. ‘Pwashington, Pwashington. Can you eat America? I said, can you eat America? If you can, you shall eat America until you are full of America. Pwamerica, Pwamerica.’
I call these statements Synodic Utterances. I am sure they make perfect sense in her mind as she is formulating them. They just somehow lose all meaning when they are uttered.
You were the first visitor that I have had, outside my lawyer, Vernah Sithole. My first outside visitor in the two years, three months, seven days and thirteen hours that I have been here. Until Vernah became interested in my case, the only outsider I saw was the woman from the Goodwill Fellowship.
It was Vernah’s idea that I should tell my story to you. Before she sent you to interview me, she told me that I should write down every detail that I could remember, that I should record everything that could make a sympathetic case. ‘It is important for the appeal,’ she said. ‘It is important because the death penalty is mandatory in cases of murder, and we have to find extenuating circumstances. It is the only way to commute the sentence.’
The appeals here are not looped in the endless cycle that goes on in America. And there is no governor to grant clemency at the last dramatic minute. I have just one appeal, to the Supreme Court. Vernah has appealed both the sentence and the conviction. The judges can do any of three things: they can confirm the conviction and uphold the sentence; confirm the conviction but quash the sentence; and, best of all, they could quash both the conviction and the sentence.
Look at me, with my legalese. I have become an expert in my own case. Perhaps I would not be here at all if Vernah had been my lawyer when I was arrested, or if she had represented me at my trial. I had no lawyer at all. When I confessed to killing Lloyd, I had not slept or eaten for days. That is another reason Vernah is convinced my appeal will succeed.
As I have said, writing to you was another of Vernah’s suggestions. ‘Write it to Melinda Carter,’ she said. ‘Tell her everything, even the things you think she already knows.’
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You cannot imagine how strange it is to be addressing this to you. Like every person who has read the magazine you write for, I am familiar with your work. Every time I bought your magazine, I skipped the big celebrity interviews, the Iraq War and financial-scandal exposés, and made your column the first feature I read every month.
So I know that you have made a career out of exposing miscarriages of justice. Vernah has told me that you are here for a year to research a series of essays on our benighted justice system.
Verity Gutu, that veritable fount of endless and often irrelevant information, told me that I was in good hands with Vernah Sithole. She said, and these were her exact words, ‘You are in good hands with that Advocate Sithole woman.’
Loveness told me about her defence of a woman in Gweru who had thrown her baby down a pit latrine. The baby had not survived; she had drowned in the faeces and urine and rank sweat. Loveness said Vernah got her off with a one-year suspended sentence. ‘A pity,’ the magistrate said, ‘that the lawyer showed more remorse than her client.’
Until the reprieve that Vernah is fighting for comes, if it comes at all, I write this in the shadow of the gallows. If the Department of Public Prosecution and the Department of Prisons have their way, I will swing from a rope and hang until my neck lengthens to breaking point or it snaps and my bowels open and my life is extinct and I am given a pauper’s funeral and an unmarked grave.
I was thinking today about the question you asked me on our second meeting: why none of the journalists here have been interested in my story. On my less cynical days, I would answer that other things matter more: who will win the election; who will govern next; which man has killed his wife with what instrument; who will win Big Brother Africa; football scores and cricket results; mysterious happenings involving sorcery and grave robberies, goblins and curses.
In many ways I am glad that no one has chosen to tell my story. When the papers first reported Lloyd’s death, they focused on my condition, just as had always been done in the township where I lived before Lloyd bought me. There was a brutal honesty in how the children regarded anyone different. If they saw a person with no legs, they did not point out a person living with no legs, or a person living with no sight; they shouted, hona chirema, hona bofu, come and see the cripple, come and see the blind man, calling attention to each deficiency.
Their attitude was implicitly rooted in the language itself. Bofu is in noun class five, denoting things, just like benzi, the word for a mad person. Chirema, like a chimumumu, is in noun class seven, also denoting things, objects, lifeless objects or incomplete, defi-cient persons. As murungudunhu or musope, I find myself with normal people in noun class one. But murungudunhu is heavy with meaning. As a murungudunhu, I am a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, of privilege, but of dunhu, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness.
I thought at first that writing all of this down for you would be difficult, but the memories are flooding my mind, faster than I can write them down. Mobhi’s feet, the soil of Mharapara Street on her soles, stick out from the bucket of her death. Copperplate thunders across the Umwinsidale downs. Lloyd and Zenzo’s laughter becomes the voice of the Baptist telling me to reject Satan. The waters of the Mukuvisi close over my head as I scream in terror.
The memories have been coming since I have been here. Long before Vernah Sithole asked me to write it down for you, I have had yawning space in which to do nothing but think and reflect. There is nothing to do here in those twelve dead hours between four thirty in the afternoon, when we are locked up for the night, and four thirty in the morning, when the siren goes. Except for the Bible, there is nothing to read, and there is no one for me to talk to because I have my own cell.
We are allowed to take our Bibles back to our cells, but Synodia does not often let me take mine back with me. My very existence irritates her. She hates that I speak English, she hates that I once lived with white people, she hates that I studied outside the country, she hates that I am here for murder.
So I reflect on my life, to rework the events that brought me here, to rearrange and reimagine them in an endless cycle of what-ifs.
Jimmy Blue Butter envies my old life with Lloyd. She envies Summer Madness, the house that her imagination has transmuted into a mansion of monstrous proportions. She does not understand how someone who once lived in such a mansion can so calmly sleep on a mattress on the floor of a prison cell or eat bread with green mould on it. She does not understand how I can stand with the others repairing the condemned goods in the dirty storage room we call the Condemn, or how I can stand hour after hour in the laundry, washing and ironing the clothes of the guards who insist that we call them by the affectionate term Mbuya Guard even as they exercise their petty tyrannies over us.
I would like to tell her that poverty holds no terrors for me, because I have known it and I have conquered it. I want to tell her, but I am not sure that she would ever understand it, that even the big mansions hold their secret miseries. I would like to tell her that they hold more of them because there is more room for them.
They still come to me sometimes, my father and my mother. They come to interrupt the rhythm of my waking moments, they come unbidden when I am in the laundry room or the Condemn, when I am singing hymns under Synodia’s direction before breakfast. They come into me in the prison garden when my thoughts are on something else and I have not willed them into my mind. They come with my sisters, Joy, whom we called Joyi, and Moreblessings, called Mobhi. They come with my brother, Gift, whom we called Givhi.
Until you attempt to write the story of your life, you cannot quite understand just how hard it is to grasp at the beginning. I wish I could start this the traditional way, by telling you all about my father and mother and how they met and who their parents were and all the begats that preceded their lives, but I cannot. Until they sold me to Lloyd, and I moved away, I knew nothing about them beyond the fact that they were my mother and father.
The ritual of oral autobiography here is that we introduce and begin stories by locating our position in the family. ‘I am the eldest in a family of seven.’ ‘I am the last-born in a family of four.’ ‘I am the middle child in a family of seven; two died, and only five are living.’ Identity begins in that one sentence: I am the first, the middle, the fourth, the second, the last.
So perhaps my proper beginning should be there. I was the second child in a family of three. The eldest was my sister Joyi, who was an equivocation in that she was the oldest living child but not the first-born child. That sainted place, of coming first, and thus bestowing the name by which my parents would for ever be known, belonged to my dead brother, Gift.
My mother and father were called MaiGivhi and Ba’Givhi, but instead of a living Gift, there was my sister Joyi, who was a year and a few months older than I was, then me, then Mobhi, the youngest, who was only four when she died.
When they come to me, they come as I remember them, except Givhi, who was only ever a name to me, or at most a small blurry face in the black-and-white photographs in my mother’s album. He comes to me as a form without shape, wrapped in the green blanket with dark-grey stripes at the edges, the blanket that was also his shroud. When he comes to me in my dreams, he is drowning. Sometimes we are drowning together. I reach for him, but the Chimera pulls me down, down, down . . . It will not let me go and I see him no more.
Joyi is small and fast with skin like heated caramel. She comes with the voices of the children on Mharapara Street. From the spare bedroom, I can hear the songs to their favourite games. ‘Tinotsvaga maunde, maunde, maunde. Tinotsvaga maunde, masi-kati ano.’ ‘Tauya kuzoona Mary, Mary, Mary. Tauya kuzoona Mary, Mary, Mary woo.’
Mobhi comes on fat toddling legs, behind her a trail of water. Up in the air she goes, she laughs, then down she comes. My father catches her and throws her up again. The world seems to shake with her laughter.
My father comes with the voices from his wireless radio set, with ‘Mirandu’ and ‘Sina Makosa’, with ‘Sweet Mother’ and ‘Celebration’, with the lugubrious music that preceded the announcements on the death notices programme, Zvisiviso Zverufu, and with the joyous greetings on Kwaziso.
He comes with Evans Mambara’s voice rising to a staccato of excitement as Moses Chunga and Joel Shambo bring the crowd to their feet in the Castle Cup final at Rufaro Stadium, and with Peter Lovemore’s voice that rises and rises as the invisible horses that he wills into our living room thunder from a place we had never been. ‘Here comes Prince of Thieves, closely followed by Midnight Oil, and taking it away is Prince of Thieves, oh, I don’t believe it, Midnight Oil has fallen behind and it is Prince of Thieves, Prince of Thieves, Prince of Thieves that wins this magnificent race on this wonderful afternoon at Borrowdale Park.’
They come with the novels that we listened to on the radio, stories with portentous titles hinting at unpropitious destinies and at the heaviness of life. You Shall Remember Me One Day, I Am Now Dead, and I Hope You Will be Successful, Embarrassment is Often Worse than Death, What Did I Ever Do to You?, If You Have Made a Plan, You Must See it Through to the Bitter End. The radio brought to us the world of these books, a world that was hard and cruel, full of betrayal, conspiracies and unexpected danger.
And they come with the music that we listened to on the nights we did not listen to novels on the radio, with my mother’s records, and the songs that we loved the best, which were the ones that were also stories. We did not always understand all the words. What did it mean that the Gatlin boys took turns at Becky? What did it mean to ‘know when to fall down’, and to ‘know when to hall down’, in ‘The Gambler’? What was an almanac? Where were all these places, almost heaven, West Virginia, where was my Tennessee mountain home, where in this world was Sweet Home Alabama?
And my mother? She is all of these songs and more. She is Jeannie, who was afraid of the dark. She is Tommy, the coward of the county. She comes with the scratchy sound of a record player. She carries a birthday cake that she hurls at the wall. She is the long, thin branch from the peach tree next door. She is the voice of the Chimera that haunts my dreams. She is the stranger that glances back from my mirror when I least expect to see her. She is my beating heart, my palpitating fear.
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In the time that I have been here, I have come to know well this formatted place, its long corridors and narrow cells. The Condemn, where we bleed our fingers on blunt needles as we try to restore to wearability the uniforms that should have been thrown out a long time ago; the laundry, where we wash and iron the guards’ clothes; the ablution block, where we wash our bodies in basins meant for faces; and the canteen, where the infernal din of four hundred spoons scraping against four hundred metal plates accompanies every meal.
For reasons that will be obvious to you, we are not allowed forks and knives. But nor are we allowed to use our hands like normal people. We eat all our food with tablespoons, everything from the waterlogged porridge to the lump-filled sadza and the cabbage that smells of sweat. I have even learned to use a spoon to cut into the slime-brown rubber that the guards, in a simultaneous combination of euphemism and optimism, give the name of meat.
There is no happy medium to our food; it is either overcooked or undercooked, or it has too much salt or not enough, or there is not enough oil in the fried vegetables or there is so much that you almost fear that America will invade. And like the food at the Jewish wedding of the joke, our food is almost inedible, but there is never enough of it.
We march from the canteen to the grounds, from the laundry to the Condemn, a regulated army in our green dresses and, when it is cold, red-and-white-striped jerseys with matching socks. In the winter months, the prison looks as though Dr Seuss has run riot through it with his Cat in the Hat inks.
Every aspect of our lives, from where and how we sleep to what we eat and how fast we eat it, from how much water to how much toothpaste we use, is chosen for us.
Our companions, our words, our very thoughts and dreams, are not ours to choose but are given to us from the sixth floor of the New Government Complex. We live on rations. Each woman has only half a roll of toilet paper, if that, twenty-five millilitres of toothpaste a week and four and a half sanitary pads a month. And it is half a pad, cut neatly down the middle, complete with a dangling wing. It is all written down somewhere, in some statutory instrument or other. Vernah Sithole can probably tell you the precise number.
If the products run out before the next allocation, we make do with what is there. So we use newspapers for tissue, or any other printed material. There was a huge commotion when Synodia conducted an inspection in Block C and found pages of the Bible mixed in with the leavings in the toilet bucket that we call gamashura, or the Catcher of Wonders. After she saw pages from the Proverbs and Psalms and the First Letter to the Corinthians mingled in with other wonders, she gave us a two-hour sermon in which her voice reached a pitch of such anger that she found herself unable to speak. Better than the sermon, though, she authorised more toilet rolls.
In the endless moments that I spent in the cells at Highlands police station, I did not imagine that I could ever be in a worse place. That was before Chikurubi. As it turns out, hell is other people, especially when those other people are your fellow women prisoners and there has been no water for a week and flies are buzzing over the gamashura and the only ablution possible is to run a dry towel across your body, hoping that the dirt and smell that cover you will somehow be absorbed by as inadequate an object as a prison-issue towel with a visible thread count.
I should be accustomed now to the strange rhythms of the jail, but it seems the two years that I have been here are not yet enough to make me used to the distorted sense of time. Rising at four thirty. Breakfast at six, followed by chores and lunch at eleven in the morning. This is followed by more chores.
The prisoners allowed outside go to the farm, where they hoe and weed and tend the vegetables meant for our table, but which go to the guards. I spend almost all my time with the other offenders in ‘D’ section. Of the four hundred-odd women in the prison, we are considered the most dangerous inmates – our sentences are the longest; we need the most watching. In the men’s prison, they call the longest-serving prisoners the ‘staff’. There are so few of us here that we do not qualify as staff.
‘A’ is for the remand prisoners who were refused bail. The main distinction between them and us is that they can wear their hair as they please, except that no weaves are allowed, lest they dim the glory of Synodia’s fake-hair weaves. They spend much of their time outside. ‘B’ is for the petty thieves, the pickpockets, shoplifters and drunken brawlers with less than two years to serve. ‘C’ is for the majority of prisoners here who have more than two but less than five years to serve.
‘D’ is for Dangerous, for Deadly, for Death.
There are fourteen of us in D at the moment, women from all over the country: Mavis Munongwa, Nomvula Khumalo, Ellen Gumbo, Ruvimbo Mherekuvana, Benhilda Makoni, Manyara Makonese, Sinfree Mapuntu, Evernice Gundani, Jimmy Blue Butter, Verity Gutu, Monalisa Mwashita, Beulah Shereni, Esnath Matema, and me, the only woman on death row.
Mavis Munongwa has been here longer than anyone, even the guards. She is the only other woman in here for murder, but she is not on death row. She poisoned her brother’s young children, two boys and two girls. They were all under the age of twelve.
Esnath Matema was a housemaid in Mount Pleasant. She lived in the same quarters as the gardener of the house, who was also her father’s brother. After they had sex, she fell pregnant. When the baby came, they strangled it and buried it in a shallow grave in the grounds of the university. Unable to live with what they had done, she confessed the truth to their employer. When their case to came to trial, she was charged with incest and infanticide. Her uncle was convicted of incest and murder.
As Vernah can tell you, when a mother kills her own baby it is infanticide. If the same child were to be killed by a man, even where the man is the father of the child, it would be murder. The judge found no extenuating circumstances in her uncle’s case. He is on death row.
In the night, when it is still, we sometimes hear the men from the male section singing away dead prisoners. When they raise their voices, and the air trembles with songs of sorrow, we know that a prisoner has died. Every time the songs reach our section, Esnath screams in the terror that her uncle is dead.
Nomvula is in for culpable homicide. She and her boyfriend were in a car that knocked over and killed a cyclist in Enthumbane Township in Bulawayo. She says she wasn’t the driver, that it was her boyfriend who was behind the wheel. They had been driving back from inspecting the venue where they had hoped to have their wedding. She only agreed to say that she had been driving because her boyfriend had asked her to. She would get a lighter sentence than him, he said, because she was a woman. She would probably just get a fine.
She got five years.
He married someone else.
Ellen is blind in one eye. She has a gash on her cheek. Her husband did that to her. Synodia calls her ‘small house’, the derogatory term for a woman who is somewhere between a mistress and a spare wife. Only the wealthiest men have small houses. Ellen was the mistress of a man who was seeing other women. She seduced a homeless man to use his semen for medicine. She hardly ever speaks, and until you see her staring out of her good eye, you hardly remember that she is there.
Ruvimbo was a teacher at a school at a platinum mine near Kwekwe. She hit one of her young pupils so hard across the face that he fell and hit his head against the blackboard. He died after a concussion. She is serving six years for culpable homicide, just like Benhilda Makoni, who poisoned her married lover. Benhilda told the court that she had given her lover a powder that she had bought from a herbalist who specialised in love potions. She merely meant to turn his affections away from his wife, she said, but instead of turning to Benhilda, he went into some sort of anaphylactic shock and died. ‘Now,’ Benhilda says to us, her eyes shining with malice, ‘his wife does not have a husband either.’
Manyara is in for stock theft. She and her brothers stole five cows belonging to a farmer near their village in Chivhu. Each cow was considered a separate count, and each count carried three years, so she and her brothers were each sentenced to fifteen years, which were reduced to seven on review.
That is something that may interest you, by the way: that the magistrates here hand out stiffer sentences for stealing cows than for raping children. You only have to look at Sinfree’s case. She is from Binga, and is often the target of the guards’ wrath because she is Tonga and cannot speak Shona. She is here for attempted murder. Her maths teacher raped her when she was thirteen. Her teacher paid a fine for the crime. When she was sixteen, her family forced Sinfree to marry her rapist so that she did not have the shame of the rape following her all her life. After years of ill- treatment, she burned down his first wife’s hut.
Evernice Gundani was part of a protection racket in Mbare that promised market women security from harassment. The harassment came from Evernice herself, and her gang. She is serving six years for extortion.
Beulah Shereni is the youngest person in D. She should be in A category, with the other prisoners on remand, because she has not yet been sentenced. She has been on remand for more than a year. But in that time, she fought with the other women in A. After she tried to bite off the ear of a woman who had accused her of looking like a witch, Synodia decreed that she move to D, ‘where she belongs’.
Jimmy has served four of her six years for attempted murder. Her real name is Rejoice Saruchera, but she is called Jimmy for reasons you would not understand. Let me see if I can explain. There is a children’s game that is played to the rhyme:
Jimmy blue butter, Jimmy blue butter,
Zengeza my umbrella, my nylon,
My chachacha and my shoe!
I remember playing that game in Mufakose, or, I should say, watching the children on Mharapara Street playing that game while I imagined that I was a part of it, waving an imaginary umbrella, shaking the skirt of my dress at the chachacha, and sticking out my foot with a flourish at my shoe.
I don’t really know what it means; what do children’s rhymes ever mean? It is nothing more than a jumble of words and asso- ciations. The Zengeza of the rhyme is in Chitungwiza, where Jimmy lived before she came here. Jimmy looks like a cartoon lesbian would look, except that she has had sex with more men than all the women in this prison if they lived ten lifetimes. And she is not really from Zengeza, but from Chipinge.
Like our old neighbour MaiNever on Mharapara Street, Jimmy speaks in the lilting cadence of the Manyika dialect. ‘Ndakaende wonini,’ she says. ‘Ndakaringe wonini.’
She is in prison for biting the penis off a man who refused to pay her after sex at a nightclub. ‘Prostitute Bites Man’s Privates’ is a frequent enough headline in the papers to make it a commonplace occurrence, but Jimmy’s attack was so ferocious that her victim fainted from blood loss. When he recovered, it was to find that Jimmy had fled to the women’s toilets, where she spat out an essential part of him into Harare’s sewers.
Verity Gutu and Monalisa Mwashita should not be in D at all. They are both C-class offenders, each serving four years for fraud and theft by conversion. But they had money to bribe the guards into putting them into the comfort of D, such as it is.
Verity is the most notorious woman here. I remember reading about her when I came back from England; it was hard to miss her story because she was on every front page. The newspapers loved her: a beautiful woman, always groomed to the nines, who photographed well, gave good quotes and had a documented sexual history with well-known men. Verity is possibly the only prisoner here for whom remorse is a foreign word. She confesses freely to anyone who cares to ask that yes, it’s true, she defrauded the International Olympic Committee and she has nothing to be sorry about. ‘What they jailed me for is nothing compared to what I did,’ she says. ‘Who do you think bought my house and paid for my son to go to university?’
There is an Olympic programme to fund athletes from small, poor nations in sports that are not well known in their countries. Verity signed up Zimbabwean athletes to take up fencing, curling, the modern pentathlon, handball and the steeplechase. When the country failed not only to field a single athlete in these events, but also to hold any qualifying rounds at all before the last games, the Olympic Committee in Lausanne launched an investigation, which found that Verity had used the grant money to buy houses in Borrowdale Brooke and Zimre Park, a BMW and a Range Rover, and to pay for her son’s degree from a university in South Africa. The Olympics have also funded countless manicures, beauty treatments and shopping trips to Dubai.
Her case was messy and public. ‘Myself, if I choose,’ she says, ‘I can bring the Olympic movement to its knees.’
It makes me smile to imagine the collapse of the Olympics. From the naked Greeks racing for laurels to Hitler refusing to shake Jesse Owens’s hand, the whole Olympic movement could come crashing down because of Verity Gutu. She has her Protectors (the capital letter is hers); she has been the mistress of at least two high-ranking politicians, three businessmen and an assistant police commissioner. Between one and all of her former lovers, she is sure that she will be out soon. ‘Myself, I will be out faster than a javelin can land.’
If Verity Gutu is the Queen of Cynics, Monalisa Mwashita is their empress. She defrauded a European embassy of more than half a million euros over two years. She was a Special Projects and Programming Officer in charge of funding projects on sustainability, governance, accountability and the rule of law, one of those jobs for whom the phrase ‘job description’ was invented – a job that cannot be explained by a simple word like ‘lawyer’ or ‘journalist’, ‘technician’ or ‘accountant’.
Her job was to determine which projects should get how much of the embassy’s funding. She created two fake organisations, one for the Advancement and Empowerment of the Girl Child, and another to support OVCs caught up in political violence. ‘Girl Children,’ she says, ‘are the easiest con in the world.’
There is apparently no easier way to raise money from donors than to present a child, female and barefoot, with a plea for money to ward off all the dreadful things that could happen to it: the HIV infection, the orphaning, the household-heading, the poverty-miring and the single-mother-becoming.
Monalisa also realised that the term ‘political violence’ is to donors what Pavlov’s bell was to his dogs. She diverted funding to the fake group she had set up to ‘assist, encourage and raise awareness to further the empowerment of OVCs subject to political violence’. OVCs, if you are not up with donor lingo, are Orphans and other Vulnerable Children. More than food, shelter and all the rest of it, OVCs and Girl Children need empowerment – empowerment and awareness-raising.
It was an easy fraud for Monalisa to pull. All that the embassy required of grant recipients was that they produce quarterly reports of how the money was spent, and these she provided, complete with glowing pictures of Girl Children smiling for the cameras.
When she told me how simple the whole thing had been to set up and pull off, I was surprised that Chikurubi is not bursting with more such fraudsters. Scams go on in almost every embassy, Monalisa said, but most embassies simply fire the persons involved without prosecuting them. They do not want to report to the police for fear of drawing attention to the kinds of activities they fund. In her case, the embassy brought its case against her on the basis of the Girl Child fraud; they said nothing about the OVCs as they did not want too much attention to be given to the political side of their funding.
It seems strange that anyone would voluntarily choose to come to D with the more dangerous criminals, but I understand why Verity and Monalisa bribed their way in from C. There are more than a hundred women in C, baby dumpers sleeping next to drug smugglers and fraudsters and thieves. And there are sometimes babies sleeping with their mothers. There are frequent fights – one woman can look at another in a ‘funny way’, or someone will get worked up because one of the babies is crying too long and too loud and waking up the others.
And there is only one toilet bucket in the cell for all the women to share. If anyone breaks the code that says that only urination is allowed in the bucket after lock-up, the acrimony can turn ugly. This is why there is a scurry of activity outside the ablution block every day just before lockdown. Two C-category prisoners, Truthness and Locadia, went for each other in the garden last week. Truthness had accidentally tipped a bucket over Locadia’s baby, and Locadia had her revenge with blows the next day.
As I am on death row, I should, in theory, live and work separately from the other Ds. I should be in my own section, with my own guards. But the prison is too small and too poor for them to make any real distinction between the others and me. So during the day, I work in the laundry, clear out the Condemn or go out into the garden or further afield, to the prison farm.
I am even allowed to play the occasional game of netball with them, and have learned, like all prisoners soon learn here, that when there is a game of netball against the guards, we should always, but always, lose the game. Jimmy told me that the first time she played, she led the prisoners to an 11–7 rout, and so angered Synodia that she brought forward lock-up by two hours.
If I can ignore the inevitability of the sentence that awaits me, there are a number of advantages to being the only one in D on death row. After lock-up is when I most feel the benefits of being on death row. I am locked up in my own cell. And, luxury of luxuries, I have my very own completely unshared toilet bucket. I have my own Catcher of Wonders.
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When I first arrived, I found the usual fear-laced fascination and superstition around my condition. I am the first woman in more than twenty years to be sentenced to death. And it is not every day that one comes across a murdering albino outside a novel by Dan Brown. But it was my skin and my crime that caused the other prisoners to shrink into themselves as they walked past me.
In those days, a woman called Marvellous gave me the hardest time. She has now been paroled after serving six years for culpable homicide. She told me that all new prisoners had to give their food to her at meal times. In the first weeks, I gave half my food to her without protest, but I soon came to see that I would starve if I did not find some way to defeat her. So I took to giving her long unbroken stares as she ate my food. ‘Don’t look at me with those eyes,’ she snapped.
I was reminded of my mother. ‘Don’t look at me with those eyes of yours,’ she often said, which never made sense to me, for I could only look at her with my eyes, and nobody else’s, but I know now that she meant those eyes with no colour or pigment to them.
Three days after I began this, Marvellous received news that her son had died. When she asked if she could go to the funeral and Synodia laughed in her face, Marvellous wailed at the top of her voice for more than an hour and only stopped when Synodia threatened to have them add another two months to her sentence. ‘No need to go to court, either,’ Synodia said. ‘We will just mislay your release papers.’
At the next meal, I stared again at Marvellous, and again at every meal for four continuous days. After a week, she asked to be moved away from me. Jimmy told me that she had told the guards that the looks I gave her are what killed her son, ‘just like she killed that white man’. Marvellous became afraid of me, and would not look at me when she passed me. After that, I did not hesitate to use my condition to my advantage.
The chameleon that I picked up in my third month here also added to my mystique. We were out on the prison farm, weeding the maize patch, when I saw a movement among the small green shoots of the new maize. When I saw that it was a chameleon, it immediately reminded me of our old neighbour Liz Warrender, the first person I had ever seen touch a chameleon. I thought of her colourful expressions and her love for gossip. ‘You should see her go after him; I promise you, she is busier than a blue-arsed fly.’
A wave of homesickness washed over me. Without thinking, I reached out to take it into my hands. The creature changed colour from green to grey to brown as it struggled with the sudden change in its environment. Then it took on the colour of my skin and the greenish colour of my uniform as it made its hesitant and slow movement up to my shoulder. In the fugue of my concentration, I did not realise immediately that the cry that rang out had anything to do with me, or the creature on my arm.
I looked up to see Benhilda staring at me with a look of revulsion on her face, the same look of shock that I must have had on my face as a child at Summer Madness the first time I saw Liz pick up a chameleon. The others turned, and instantly moved together, as though their solidarity would ward off the miasma of my evil.
‘It is only a chameleon,’ I said.
‘Only a chameleon?’ The whisper went up and down the line of women.
‘How can you say it is only a chameleon?’ This was Beulah. ‘Are you some kind of a witch that you play with such things?’
The chameleon made a more determined effort to go round to my other arm. I picked it up in both hands, and made my way to a cluster of baby dumpers who gave little shrieks of shock as they scattered. I set the creature down and watched it as it changed colour again before disappearing into the maize.
I had forgotten that, like those creatures of the darkness, like owls and hyenas, chameleons are portents of evil, associated with witchcraft and black magic. The news spread throughout the prison and made me safe from all bullying, at least from other prisoners.
The fear did not extend to the guards. Synodia and Loveness, assisted by Mathilda and Patience, are responsible for guarding D and C sections. To them, we have no names. We are cattle rustlers and murderers, arsonists and prostitutes. They look different from each other. Loveness, the principal prison officer – she is short and round and light-skinned, with several missing teeth. Synodia, recently promoted to assistant superintendent, and thus Loveness’s superior, is a little darker, a little taller, and a lot more sour-looking. Patience is simperingly pretty, all eye- and lip-liner, and Mathilda is well padded with a slow and heavy gait.
But they also look the same, as though they are interchangeable one with the other, as though the specifics of their individualities are subsumed into the uniforms that they wear.
Through the weekly ironing that we do for them, we catch glimpses of their lives outside the prison. Loveness has a daughter and no husband, Synodia three children and a husband who works in some sort of factory; I have ironed his blue overalls. Mathilda’s children, three boys, like to play with toy cars, real or made up, I don’t know; their trousers are frayed on the parts that cover their knees. It is all I can do not to damage them further with the iron. Patience lives alone; she likes her clothes in lurid patterns and wears too much oil in her hair. She is not married, but we sometimes find men’s underwear in her laundry.
‘She will never keep the Commissioner at this rate,’ said Benhilda as she waved a pair of underpants over her head. ‘She must know, surely, that the only way to keep a man is to make sure that you wash these yourself.’
Unlike the others, Patience prefers to speak to us in English. She is in training to be a court interpreter. ‘Irregardless of the absence of water,’ she says, ‘you should make sure the hoarse pipes are connected.’
‘You must make sure that your plates and bowels are clean.’
‘You have the wrongful number!’ she screamed into her phone the other day. ‘I said this is the wrongful number!’
‘Can you believe it,’ she confided to Loveness, ‘there are women, married women, whole married women, five, six children later, who have not had a single organism?’
‘You don’t say,’ said Loveness.
‘Not even one organism, just imagine,’ she said, and in the next breath she shouted at me for listening and told me to get on with my work. This is what surprises me most about Chikurubi, that we can laugh as much as we do. But there is a hysterical edge to my laughter, because every time I laugh I know that I am laughing into the darkness.
I did not see my family again after my parents sold me. I remember once sitting at my stool before the long wooden desk in the science lab at the Convent, melting potassium permanganate crystals in a test tube over a Bunsen burner, when the thought suddenly occurred to me that I could no longer picture Mobhi’s face in my mind’s eye. I closed my eyes to see her, and concentrated so tightly that I did not hear Sister Mary Gabriel shouting that my crystals were burning.
There are some things about her that I still remember. Her fat legs, her pudgy arms thrusting out to be picked up, her laugh against the sky. But over the years, her face has become a blur, like a jelly that has been out of the fridge for so long that it has lost its shape, and I cannot see her face. I remember her feet the most because they stuck out of the bucket in which she drowned.
I have no pictures that could have helped me remember. I took none with me. My mother’s photo album remained with all the other things that I left behind in Mufakose. And even then, even if I had wanted to take some, there were not many pictures in that album.
These things that I am telling you about, at least in these early years, all happened in the middle of the 1980s, before the digital revolution, long before the days where every person in the world had a camera. For people like us who lived in the townships, to be photographed was a commitment that required money and serious effort.
On the rare occasions that we were photographed, we dressed in our best clothes, in our Christmas clothes that doubled as our birthday clothes, my sisters and I in the same lacy dress but in different colours. My brother, Gift, in the few pictures that remained of him after he died, wore a suit and a velvet bow tie.
Getting our picture taken meant taking the bus to Highfield Township, where there was a photography studio. Joyi and I tried to walk without shuffling our feet; we were afraid to disturb the dust of the township street, which had a stubborn propensity to stick to freshly washed and Vaselined legs. Mobhi was up on my father’s shoulders.
Past Gwanzura Stadium we walked, past the Mushandirapamwe Hotel, past the Huyaimuone Superette and Butchery, past the Chirwirangwe Cash and Carry and the chemist’s, until we reached the studio.
The photographer was called Bester Kanyama. This was serious business: he did not like it when we smiled. He posed us with incongruous objects around or before us, an open umbrella in front of a velvet curtain in one case, or next to a radiogram or wireless set in another, or else holding a vase of artificial flowers fashioned from discarded thin wire and coloured women’s stockings.
When he photographed Joyi, Mobhi and me separately from our parents, he sat us next to a large doll with a porcelain face that had staring eyes and a blank smile. Our pictures thus had a frozen quality; our eyes were brighter than new dollar coins, as though a light had been shone directly into them.
I always looked pale, paler than everyone else, like a ghost against the others, as though I were a live and large version of the porcelain doll on my knee; the same doll that frightened me in my first week at Summer Madness, or a doll very like it.
The only time I can remember that we did not prepare to get photographs taken was a few weeks before Mobhi died. My mother was happy, which made us all nervous. This was around the time she had joined Reverend Bergen’s church and he had singled her out and made his great prophecy about her fate.
A photographer who walked from door to door taking pictures passed our house. He was not Bester Kanyama, but someone else, a man who lived in Kambuzuma Section 2 and whose studio was the street.
My mother called him into the yard. ‘How much for a picture?’ she asked.
The man replied, ‘One dollar for one card, and three dollars for four cards, but if you want more we can negotiate.’
After a long negotiation, my mother led him to the side of the house, from where my father worked. Joyi, Mobhi and I followed. As ‘Mirandu’ played on the radio, the photographer took our picture. He wore a small fedora hat with a red feather in it. When he creased his brow, the hat moved, and with it the feather. We laughed out loud, all of us, my father, my mother, my sisters and me; we burst into hard, sudden laughter. In that moment he took the picture.
We did not see the developed photograph until after Mobhi died.
The photographer had said that my mother should come and pick the photographs up from his house in Section 2 after two weeks, which was how long it would take him to move around the township to finish his roll of film and persuade people to have their pictures taken. In the tumult and turmoil that followed Mobhi’s death, the pictures that my mother had ordered lay unremembered with all the other photographs the photographer had taken.
After my mother failed to collect them from his house, as he had asked her to do, the photographer returned to our house. When he heard of Mobhi’s death, he took off his hat and tried to give the photograph to my mother. He did not ask for money. She did not take it; she was then in a catatonic state. He left it on the starched-lace doily on top of the display cabinet. In a brief moment in which she came to herself, she tore it up and scattered the pieces on the floor.
If I try hard enough, I see that image still. My father sits on a half-finished wardrobe with Mobhi in his arms, her face cracked in two by her smile. His head is thrown back. Joyi and I are grinning, arm in arm. My mother’s face is radiant with laughter. I am next to my mother, trying to ignore the unfamiliar lightness of her arm around my shoulders.
After everyone had gone to sleep that night, I looked for the pieces of the photograph and tried to stick everyone together with my saliva. It did not work. I contemplated stealing sticking tape from the desk of Mistress Nyathi, my class teacher. Until I could steal the tape, I kept the pieces in the stapled middle pages of the novel Muchadura, which I had just won for coming first out of all the four classes of grade threes.
I thought the picture would be safe in there. Not only was it a novel about a terrifying avenging spirit, but it also had a cover featuring a creepy unsmiling child, the torso of a ghostly woman and a disembodied eye. My father had made me cover it in brown paper. Our neighbour had the same book, and Mobhi used to burst into tears when she saw it and Joyi would not look directly at it. For all her fear of the book, Joyi took Muchadura with her to school one day without telling me and did not return it. Even when I beat her up until she had a nosebleed, she would not tell me what she had done with the book.
Under the bed, I found a little piece. It showed one of Mobhi’s fat legs against the light fabric of my father’s trousers. I held on to that piece of Mobhi as long as I could, before I lost it, and it too disappeared like the rest of the photograph.
Vernah Sithole explained to me at our first meeting that the best I can expect to get in the absence of a completely new and fresh trial is a life sentence. ‘I am fighting to get the conviction overturned,’ she said. ‘But if that does not happen, the Supreme Court could commute the penalty to life. And there will be no early release,’ she added, ‘unless something changes after the election. There could be an amnesty that affects you too. But otherwise life really means life, you know.’
She could also have used the words of the recent editorial in the Herald. It was in response to a report by the Goodwill Fellowship that said prisons had become places of despair disproportionate to the severity of the crimes that brought people there.
With its usual charm and perspicacity, the Herald got to the heart of the matter: ‘Let no one be in any doubt that in this country we really know how to deal with criminals. We put them in prison, then we throw away the key, and leave them to rot there with all the other filth and dregs of society. And if they do not like it, well, they should not commit crimes.’
Synodia could have been written these words. At her approach the milk of human kindness curdles. To every complaint, that there are too few blankets, that there is too little food, or that there is no water to flush the toilets, or not enough sanitary pads, she says the same thing. ‘It was not me who made you a criminal. If you don’t like living in this place, you should not be a criminal.’
So life means a life like poor Mavis Munongwa’s, a life with no parole. There is no hope of escape either, no floating to freedom on sacks of coconuts like Papillon, or, like Andy Dufresne, digging my way out with a rock hammer and crawling through a river of shit to come out clean on the other side.
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When I close my eyes and will it to, Mufakose Township comes to me complete in every detail. I still know all the streets that I passed on the way to school; we always took the same route with my father. We passed Chiguyakuya, Mbizi, Kafudzamombe and Mutarimbo. We went past Handira and Mbada and Dapi, and turned into Zongororo, which means millipede, and I imagined that the houses on that road were the legs of a millipede. From Zongororo, we passed the church, turned into Muonde, left into Munondo, then left again into the school gate.
I discovered when I left Mufakose that it is possible to live in Harare in total unawareness that there are areas to the west and to the south containing the detritus of human existence, that it is possible to be unaware of the teeming townships with the houses that look exactly the same, redbrick houses with a square inch of space around them, houses in which humans, plants and dogs managed to flourish. Families lived together all packed one on top of the other, like sardines in a tin: mother, father, another mother, sometimes; aunts, uncles and cousins.
You will discover as you walk around the city that it was planned to keep the direct heat of the sun away from the faces of white people. In the mornings, they left the northern suburbs to go into town to work, and the sun was behind them, and in the evenings, when they went back home, the sun was behind them still. The streets of the northern suburbs are lined with avenues of jacarandas and flamboyants that give cooling shade. But in the townships, the sun is always in the faces of the people. And there are no tree-lined avenues, no cool grass beneath the feet, only the hard heat of the dusty streets.
When I found myself living with Lloyd at Summer Madness, I surprised myself by missing the sounds that I had heard from inside the room that I shared with my sisters in Mufakose. This was the room that my mother called the speya. In the township, the parents’ bedroom was just the bedroom, and the second bedroom, for there were only ever two bedrooms, was always the speya. This indicated rooms so plentiful that one was spare, but as the speya was always where the children slept, it also suggested that our rooms were not our own, and we were mere interlopers, temporary guests who could be evicted at any time.
In Umwinsidale, with Lloyd, on the other side of Harare, I was as far from Mufakose as it was possible to be. Umwinsidale was still tranquillity. There were no sounds that did not belong to nature. Lloyd’s house, Summer Madness, sat on its own small hill, and when I looked out into the night, I saw nothing but the darkness of the valley, and the faraway lights of the neighbours shimmering like fireflies in a distant forest.
In Mufakose, the night was torn with sounds of couplings, snoring, howling dogs, the running feet of thieves chancing it in the darkness, and children mimicking zvinyau dances under the huge tower light that lit up the township street.
In the daytime, the township pulsated to the symphonic movement of the everyday. From the speya, I heard the children of Mharapara Street play their favourite games. I knew all the rules to all the games. I knew it was bad form kuita chiziso when playing rakaraka or dunhu. I knew just how to challenge a rival to a fight by forming a small mound of earth then destroying it while looking around dramatically and saying, ‘Ndaputsa zamu raamai vako. See, see, I have smashed your mother’s breast’, so that the rival had no choice but to fight in defence of the smashed breast.
I knew all the words to all the games, and sang along to them. ‘Pansapo paribe, askende rimwana, pansapo paribe, askende rimwana auPretty auke aukende sikende s’ke skende sikende auke auke wawa.’
From the speya, I heard the woman who walked up Mopani Road from Mufakose to Kambuzuma crying out the vegetables that she sold. I heard MadzibabaConorio, with his shaven head and bushy beard, shouting, ‘Mabhodhoro’, as the pots that he collected for mending clanged and jangled against the bottles at his side.
I heard the beggars, the blind men and women led by their children, pleading from one end of Mharapara to the other, ‘Toooooooooookumbirawo rubatsiro vanhu vaJehovah’, and their grateful claps and acclamations when anyone extended them a kindness. ‘Mwari venyu vakukumborerei, vakukomborerei, vaku- komborerei. Mugare kure kwemoto vakukomborerei vakukomborerei vakukomborerei.’
I heard SekuruAlexio, whose eyes dripped with yellow pus and who spoke in a Malawian accent as he tempted the children into buying mbwirembwire. If a child bought more than one pocketful, he exclaimed at what he saw as the child’s riches and said, in delight, ‘Uri mwana wambozha!’
We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else around us was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible.
We were intimate with the ways of our neighbours and they with ours. Little happened that did not invite the scrutiny and commentary of the township. We knew when our neighbours were having chicken, and they knew when we were having matemba. We knew that, at one end of Mharapara, Nhau’s mother habitually burned the meat as well as we knew that there would be no meat smells from the kitchen of the Malawian family at the other end, who seemed to live on Lacto sour milk.
What we did not see and smell ourselves, we got from our most gossipy neighbour, MaiWhizi. No one entered any yard on Mharapara without her knowledge. She had countless relatives with endless virtues. She ended up being related to most people on the street because she had an uncle or a nephew or a muramu who had just that minute arrived from kumusha, he was looking for a job, he would get a good job, it was just a matter of time before he got a very good job, an excellent job, and all he wanted was a good wife to cook for him.
Vero, who lived next door but one to MaiPrincess, married MaiWhizi’s husband’s youngest brother. She had set her eyes on Rispah, MaiNever’s aunt’s daughter, for her own aunt’s eldest son, but Rispah fell pregnant. MaiWhizi knew about Rispah’s shame before anyone, down to the names, heights and ages of all the inhabitants of the house in Mugaragunguwo Street to which Rispah had fled to escape the wrath and shame of MaiNever, Ba’Never and her parents.
For all that she knew more about Mharapara than any of us, MaiWhizi was more capable of astonishment than anybody else. She compared everything shocking or startling, anything surprising or unexpected, to a bioscope. ‘Ah,’ she exclaimed, and put her hands together in a quick clap in front of her face before quickly releasing them, ‘Zvariri bhais’kopu!’ She spent hours polishing her veranda red with Sunbeam polish or wiping her windows. When MaiWhizi’s curtains twitched, you knew that something was happening.
Although they later became fast friends, MaiNever once threatened to beat up MaiWhizi because she told MaiPrincess that MaiNever’s husband had been seen at a shebeen in Mbare. ‘Ba’Never vakasvikopikire chipostori zvariini?’ MaiNever shouted in Manyika. ‘Magemenzi andinobvire wonini, andinobvire wacha zuva ngezuva.’
MaiPrincess was also called MaiMaTwins because she had given birth to two sets of twins. She had six children under the age of twelve. She was the most pregnant woman that anyone had ever seen. She seemed always to have just given birth, be about to give birth or be feeding a child at her breast. Her first two children, the twin girls Princess and Pretty, were followed by their brother, Progress, then by a girl, Promise, and twin boys, Providence and Privilege. For all I know, she had more children after I left Mufakose. Perhaps she had a Prudence, a Praise or a Promotion. Perhaps she had a Prevarication or a Predestination.
MaiWhizi, MaiNever and MaiMaTwins talked to each other over their buckets of laundry. In the year that I left, they were obsessed with Peggy, the township ghost with red lips, a shining Afro and an alluring bottom. Peggy had been seen in Highfield and at Chitubu in Glen Norah, they said, and was now working her way up Kambuzuma Road to Mufakose.
‘She lured a man at Mushandirapamwe Hotel, hanzi they danced all night.’
‘When they got to his house she said he was not to light a candle.’
‘The next morning, he woke up in the graveyard, right on top of her grave.’
‘And he saw Peggy, but now she was a statue, pafungei ipapo, just a statue kneeling on the grave, just kneeling there, stiff as anything, kunge mukadzi waLot chaiye. Just like Lot’s wife.’
When they were not gossiping over the laundry, the township women tore the air with the names of their children.
‘Nhau! Princess! Never!’
‘Promise! Providence! Progress! Imi! Chiuyai mugeze!’
‘Whizi! Nhai iwe Wisdom! Urimatsisu?’
‘Run to MaiNever and give her this pot.’
‘Run to MaiPrincess and ask her for sugar.’
‘Run to MaiWhizi and tell her she is late.’
‘Run to MaiGivhi and give her this powder.’
‘Run to the tuck-shop utenge half-bread.’
‘Run to the tuck-shop and buy seven candles.’
‘Run outside and don’t bother me.’
‘Run away and don’t ask too many questions.’
‘Run along before I slap you.’
Run here, run there, run forward, run backwards. The children of the township were constantly moving dynamos, with fast legs but with heads often elsewhere, attending to the tasks at hand with half the mind on play. The ensuing recriminations would ring out across the street.
‘You have spilt the sugar!’
‘You silly child, you have squashed the tomatoes!’
‘Mazizheve anenge ababa! You have forgotten the bread!’
‘What do you mean, you dropped the money?’
Then the sound of a slap, or a walloping with the favoured instrument of the house concerned – a belt, a sjambok or the long, thin branch from a peach tree. Then would come wails and lamentations, ndagura, ndagura kani nhai Mhai, before the admonition to go out and play.
But the tears soon dried, and the pain was forgotten in chasing the Snowman ice cream man, in shouting, ‘Paribe musevenzo, paribe musevenzo’, while dancing after SekuruAlexio, and in the dizzying round of play and games, rakaraka and nhodo, dunhu and pada, games that I did not play in the township where we lived.
The strongest memory that I have of the speya is the smell of Mobhi’s urine on the green-and-brown blankets hanging on the washing line outside our houses. I say our houses because those same urine-soaked blankets followed us to hang on other washing lines, as we moved from Mbare to Highfield before settling in Mufakose, from where I was sold, their green and brown stripes fading from the sun and washing. We were one short after Gift was buried.
I must have been three or four when Gift died. I read somewhere that long-term memory is linked to the left prefrontal lobe in the brain, which only develops after the age of three. I also read, perhaps in the same article, that memory is closely linked with the acquisition of language, that without verbal ability to articulate experience, there can be no memory, and this is why our earliest recollections date from the time we learn to speak.
So it may have been even earlier than that when my brother died. Or perhaps it is another child’s funeral that I remember, nothing to do with my brother at all. I never knew exactly how old Gift was when he died because no one talked about him, though his name was with us daily in the MaiGivhi and Baba Givhi that my parents called each other – apart from those moments when anger broke through the decorum of naming conventions and they called each other by their first names. It was a shock to us to hear them call each other Moira and Benson; it was almost like seeing them naked.
Our house, all our houses, had rickety doors and thin, thin windows that shook as the doors were opened and closed, and shook even harder when my mother banged them. There was a small garden around our house; there we had a banana plant. Our neighbours had half-attempted orchards with mango trees and, occasionally, naartjies. The gardens were only just big enough to grow small vegetable patches; however long people lived in the towns, agriculture, like an atavistic instinct, was still in their blood and drove them to plant crops and till the land even on these tiny plots.
MaiPrincess and her family, who lived next door, had a large avocado tree and wanted to keep each avocado to themselves, but we did not always give back the fruit that fell and rolled under the tarpaulin covering my father’s wood and tools. We mashed up MaiPrincess’s avocadoes and spread them on bread.
I slept next to Mobhi, who slept next to Joyi, and I often woke up with the smell of her urine on my nightdress. My mother, enraged, would beat us, and command me to wake her in the night. But the toilet was outside and the night held terrors for me.
In the night, our main door squeaked, dogs barked, insects flew and the witches who ate children mounted an invisible presence and saw through the eyes of the barking dogs. In the night walked Peggy, with her big bottom and big Afro. Then there was the small matter of the haunted house six houses down from MaiNever’s.
It was an empty house, with all the windows smashed in. It drew the gaze of everyone in the township. At least during the day it held its fascination. In the night, it was a place of terror. People had lived there once. But every time new lodgers moved into that house, they woke in the night to find themselves, and all that they owned, out in the street.
People said that there was an angry ngozi spirit in that house. Ngozi, if you did not already know, is the spirit of vengeance that follows a violent death. All the people on our side of Crowborough believed that someone had been killed there, and that, until that spirit was appeased, all those who lived in the house would live with the horror of that terrible slaying and wake to find themselves outside the house.
The haunted house was on the Dindingwe end of Mharapara, nowhere near where we lived, but it was close enough that I preferred not to go out at night. A million times better to hang up our urine-soaked blankets, a million times better to wash daily the old nightdress in which I slept. And when Mobhi drowned, her feet sticking up from out of the zinc bucket in our bathroom, I remember the relief of dry blankets.
In the township, we lived in forced intimacy. We knew which neighbours borrowed which things: shoes for a school trip, sugar, mealie meal, salt, eggs.
We revered Teacher Maenzanise, who had something that few others had – a car. When Constance fell from the avocado tree at Princess’s house, her mother MaiNever carried her broken body all the way down Mharapara, across Shuramurove and into Mhembwe Street, where Teacher Maenzanise lived. All that MaiNever needed to say was ‘Connie wabvirodonha’, and Teacher Maenzanise put down his Parade and his cigarette and drove them to Gomo Hospital.
There was no thought of an ambulance. For one thing, there was no phone to call it with. Teacher Maenzanise provided an unofficial ambulance service for everyone on our side of Crowborough Way. MaiPrincess’s daughter Promise had been born in that car, Ba’Nhau’s old Sekuru had died in it, and both had been on the way to the hospital.
In the year before I was sold, Teacher Maenzanise’s reputation was in danger of being dented because an angry woman came to school and took off her clothes in front of him. Drawn by the commotion, a crowd of children and teachers came to his classroom and heard her threaten to take off her clothes. This was meant to show that she had lost all her dignity; it was to show that the world might as well see her naked because of what he had done to her. ‘Ndokubvisira hembe, I will strip off my dress right here,’ she shouted.
I did not see this myself, but my sister Joyi did because she was in Teacher Maenzanise’s class. She and her classmates had seen the woman, but could not describe what she looked like naked because Teacher Maenzanise had taken his jacket and covered her up and fought her out of the door. She had held on to the doorjamb and Teacher Maenzanise had had to force her out. The last thing that Joyi and the class had seen were her naked legs kicking her light-blue plastic Sandak shoes to the ground.
The township gossips said it must have been her fault if she was pregnant, didn’t she know he was married, she was a slut who deserved everything she got.
‘Who would say no to being married to a teacher?’ said MaiWhizi.
‘Especially a teacher with a car,’ MaiNever said.
‘Imagine marrying a woman like that, ukaroora zvakadaro unenge wazviparira ngozi,’ was MaiWhizi’s conclusion.
MaiWhizi would come over and comment on the hairstyle my mother was working on. She was also obsessed with other women’s complexions.
‘Ende vasikana Rispah mazotsvuka,’ she would say. ‘Murikuzoreiko mazuvano, what lightening cream are you using?’ Like the bi-coloured rock python in the Just So Stories, her face was two different colours. The cheeks were black – from using Ambi lightening cream, everyone said – and the rest of her face was the colour that she should have been, the colour she kept changing.
But this was all in my mind. I longed to play on Mharapara with the others but I could not join in. I could not join in because, if I went out and stayed in the sun for any length of time, my skin cracked and blistered. I spent my days indoors with the sound of the township coming through my mother’s shining windows, or I sat and observed them from our Sunbeam-red veranda. And when I did venture out, it was to be greeted as murungudunhu, so that I thought that must be part of my name.
The nights that I spent at Highlands police station and those early nights at Chikurubi in the cell that I shared with Mavis Munongwa brought back the old dreams that had shuddered me awake, the dreams that had not disturbed my sleep since my first two years with Lloyd.
In my dreams, I see a njuzu that is shaped like the Chimera. It moves beneath a dress of poppies that are brighter than the blood gushing from its mouth. It speaks in a voice thick with blood and water. ‘You are dirty, you are unclean,’ it says.
It pulls me down, down into its throat. I jolt myself awake just at the point that its throat closes over me and my face is submerged and my lungs fill with water. Sometimes the njuzu’s voice sounds like my mother’s, other times like Lloyd’s. In the water with me is Lloyd’s swollen face, his eyes open, his neck constricted by the creature’s tail. As it pulls me into itself, I hear the clanging crashing of a thousand keys. A scream that begins as mine merges into Lloyd’s sister Alexandra’s before becoming the shriek of the Chimera.
I don’t know if you can smell in your dreams, Melinda, but in mine the creature comes wrapped in the suffocating smell of camphor, as though it has washed in it, as though its very marrow is made of it. And as it was then, I can never go back to sleep after my sudden waking. I lie listening to the sleep sounds of the prison, the stertorous breathing of Mavis Munongwa in the next cell, the high whine of a million mosquitoes, the creaks and sudden sounds of the prison talking to itself. I listen to the beating of my heart, until four thirty in the morning comes and with it the strident siren that heralds a new day.
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