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By Austin Kaluba (Zambia)


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Maria, by Austin Kaluba (Zambia)

Maria was in a reflective mood as she cooked Sadza (stiff porridge) for her husband, as she thought about recording her memories. She had just read a story in The Guardian newspaper about ox-pulled ambulances in many parts of rural Zimbabwe. A pathetic picture in the story depicted one such an ambulance.

Her heart goes out to her fellow country men and women who have to face grinding poverty on a daily basis. “Oho, what a pity”, Maria thought as she considers how lucky she was to have escaped poverty in her own country by coming to the United Kingdom (UK).

“Life in the UK is bearable. That is only if you put aside the broken baby trolleys, half-burnt Yamaha motor bike, soiled muddy-boots and construction rubble damped in the backyard of her two-bedroomed house in Hatfield, UK”, contemplated Maria, as she cooks the meal.

“It is peaceful here in England, because one does not have to worry daily about food price increases, shortage of fuel and electricity, like it is the case back home in Zimbabwe”, she continues to think positively, even though at the back her mind marriage problems do bother her.

The junk behind the house was what Maria has to come to terms with, just as she has come to accept her marital problems.  It blended the ugly and the beauty that England has to offer.

Sometimes she thinks of acting on Grace’s advice, one of her friends to ask for relocation to somewhere else on the basis of the danger being posed by the junk in the backyard to her five year old daughter, Chichi.

As Maria thought about this, her daughter Chichi slept peacefully on a sofa.

Chichi began to moan, and moved in her sleep,  and with a fairy tales book resting on her chest, she landed on a floor.

Pulling the pot of Sadza from the stove, Maria walked over to lift up Chichi and walked her gently to the bedroom upstairs, and left her peacefully resting.

A glance at her watch made Maria to realize that it was half past twelve. That is nearly time for her husband to get his meal and she knows that he likes to have his meals ready, the moment he walks through the door.

She hurried downstairs to finish preparing for meals after laying the girl to sleep. Gripped by the fear of offending her husband she prepared sadza, as the chicken stew was ready exactly the way her husband likes to have it.

The car pulled off outside just as Maria finished preparing sadza. Her adrenalin Jumped, as the fear of offending her husband griped her. “It’s him”, she thought terrified by the fact that she knew her husband wanted his meals ready the moment he walked through the door.

The back door opened quietly and Maria’s husband walked in. Maria has always wondered if his stealthily way of opening the door was his plot of hoping that he would one day caught her in her act of mischief. 

For a moment as he came, Maria’s husband stood at the kitchen watching her silently without saying a word or greeting.

“How was work”, Maria asked him in English. Always She  has to be the one breaking the ice.

“OK” , he replied in Shona.

Maria sensed that he was in one of his foul moods. She wanted to go upstairs but leaving him alone would not be a good idea. “I know he wants to diffuse the tension the demons brewing in his chest”, Maria began to figure it out in her mind.

He walked straight to the living room and sat at the dining table, and waited for her to bring the meals. Placing two plates on a tray, one for sadza and one for chicken stew, she stole a glance at her husband’s grumpy face. “This moody face makes him to look two times older than his age,” she thought inwardly.

“Where is Chichi?” he asked without taking his eyes off from the meal.

“Sleeping,” Maria replied

“Has she eaten?” he asked

“Yes, she has”, replied Maria

With his hand tenderizing a lump of sadza inside, he pointed a clenched fist at her and asked; “And you. Have you eaten?”

“I have eaten too,” Maria answered, but by this time she sensed that the storm was brewing. She pulled the chair and sat down at the table.

He just groaned and concentrated on his food, as he threw lumps after lumps of sadza into his mouth and swallowing with a great deal of noise.

Almost half way down with his meal, he paused for a moment as if he was recognizing Maria at the table with him for the first time. He sarcastically joked to her; “Heh, you have become an English woman in a black skin. Hey? You no longer want to eat meals with your husband in a way our culture demands. You eat alone with your child.”

“What is wrong with me having meals alone. By the way Chichi is not my child alone. It is our child”, Maria responded thinking only afterwards that she has never been so forthright with him like this.

“The British culture has now taught you to be cheeky with your husband. You would not have spoken to me in that manner back home”, Maria’s husband said raising his voice.

“What is being cheeky about reminding you that Chichi is our child?”, Maria inquired in a polite voice tone.

“What is wrong is to answer back when your husband is talking to you”, he explained to her, before ordering her; “Maria keep quiet”.

He finished eating his meals and switched on the TV set. He flipped through the channels until he found one channel televising boxing match between Daryl Harrison and Danny Williams. As he watched the match he kept on moving his head as if the boxers’ punches would land on him too. 

Maria was finding herself trapped in a marriage, which if she had her way out, she would have ended it long ago. She thought of ending it but the thought of shaming her family back home made her not to do so.  “I hate finding myself in his marital trap”, she kept on thinking.

Her husband, Tapiwa was like a leech in her life. The two met in Harare, while she was a teacher and Tapiwa was an accountant for Zimbabwe Airlines.

It was not love at first sight but she instantly got attracted to him because he reminded her of her late father.

Like her father, Tapiwa was tall, dark and muscular but the similarities ended there. Unlike her father who was easy going and enjoyed jokes, Tapiwa has a reserved personality. He seems to go about life suspicious of everyone, assuming that everybody might be his enemy.

Maria was the opposite of the satyr she married; a beautiful woman who was in her prime age when they got married; lively and clear sparkling eyes with the personality that resonates the same character her father had.

It was only after few months of marrying Tapiwa that she realized the mistake she made. Maria became frustrated by his possessiveness, unpredictable temper, which thought she would get over her cantankerous husband by being attentive to his needs and showing how much he loved him.

However, with time it transpired to Maria that Tapiwa’s love life is based on two things. That is  his job and his wife; without realizing that Maria and his job did not blend. He should be a center of everything in their world, if that was not the case he felt threatened.

Maria only realized the extent of his jealousy, the day when Tapiwa beat her up for having a mere conversation with one of her former classmates. She lost two teeth from his beatings and with swollen face and a black eye she went to local police station to report the assault.

To her dismay, a police officer out-rightly told her “we cannot intervene in domestic affairs.” The neighbours were not helpful to her plights either. She overheard two women chatting about how modern wives not having courage to take blows with smiling faces.

To reinforce their conviction about women’s submission to man, one of them sang a marriage counseling song in Shona:

 Listen you untutored whore
The husband is your lord and protector
Someday, he can give you loving slaps
Don't cry out and wake the neighbourhood.
It is your silence we respect, not your howling
Loving slaps strengthen the marriage
loving slaps, that is the name of the game.

 As Tapiwa watched the boxing match, Maria’s mind drifted back, back to the first day she was beaten by Tapiwa.

The echoes of the song in her mind, made her to smile and Tapiwa noticed her smiling. “Why are you smiling to yourself”, he confronted her.

“I was only thinking loud”, she said meekly.

“What’s thinking loud?” he asked.

Maria ignored him and once again got withdrawn into her own world.

He continued watching boxing match. She decided to leave him glued to the television set, as she went to bed, heavy with thoughts about her marriage predicament, which she could not figured out when it would come to an end.

At 14h00 the alarm rang, which woke Maria for her afternoon shift at Stevenage, where she worked as a caretaker in Blue Pines Home. Within twenty minutes she got herself ready and headed downstairs to bade Tapiwa farewell. He was still glued to the TV.

She commuted by bus to work as Tapiwa would rarely drove her to work. In the early hours of the afternoon shifts, there was little work to do because the service users would have been bathed and fed.

At work a Jamaican colleague made a hand over to Maria; they sat in the living room with service users. Kate Morrison in her 20s and Richard Morton in his early 40s were some of her workmates.

One of the service users, was a wheelchair-bound fellow called Richard. He was severely disabled, as compared to Sally Brown who was also wheelchair-bound and mental disabled. Sally was beautiful with deformed legs, who when she talked she would keep on repeating sentences.

Maria recognized flashes of normalcy on Sally’s face from time to time, as Sally would look at Maria closely and smiles. She would return the smile, and Sally was Maria’s favourite service user.

At that moment the car stopped outside. It was Nancy, her Zimbabwean friend who was also doing a late noon shift. They both arrived in the UK around the same time. Nancy, a big woman with ample buttocks that shook like jelly as she walked, came in and greeted; “Hi Maria”.

“Hi Nancy!”, Maria replied

“I am late. Traffic jam you know”, Nancy said.

However, Maria did not respond.

She has heard the same excuse for late coming many times. It was a usual excuse; traffic jam.

As the two settle down to start the day shift, they exchange conversation about the situation back home in Zimbabwe.

As usual Nancy always talked non-stop, especially about the situation in Zimbabwe, asking Maria.

“Did you read the story about the Ox-pulled ambulances?” she asked laughingly.

“I did”, Maria replied but suppressing her laughter, before she jokingly passed a remark; “Very soon old Bob (Robert Mugabe nickname) himself will be driven around in Oxen-pulled car.”

“How do you chase away white farmers and expect war veterans to run the farms. Old Bob thinks war veterans are better than white farmers”, Nancy commented.

Changing the subject, Nancy then asked Maria; “How is Tapiwa?”

“Grumpy as ever”, Maria replied.

“That one will never change”, Nancy said.

“I thought Britain would change him. But it seems he is becoming worse. May be it is because of the odd jobs he is doing and the cold weather here that make him grumpy”, Maria said.

“Does he still beat you?” Nancy asked in a mocking manner, slightly laughing as if she was suggesting that Maria has let the beating to happen.

Maria ignored Nancy’s remarks as she lovingly stroke Sally’s hair. Checking her watch, Maria realized that time was moving fast.

“Maria, we need to cut vegetables for supper. May be let’s move the three patients  with us into the kitchen”, Nancy suggested, as she stood up.

The two women continued chatting as they moved the two patients with them to prepare super for four service users in the kitchen. 

At the end of the shift, Nancy decided to give Maria a ride to her place in Hartfield, even though she lives in St Albans. However, Nancy suggested they should pass by a friend’s house in Welwyn Garden City, where the party was going on before driving home.

Maria agreed to the idea. As they arrived at the party, the place was teeming with people, many of them Zimbabweans, who came with their wives or girlfriends.

It was great but Maria became very uneasy as time passed by. She knew she would be late with no plausible explanation to her husband. At the party she mingled with people and met  long time friends that she was happy to hug and exchange kisses.

Nancy offered her a glass of wine and she was amused by the way she held the glass, as if it contained hemlock.

Maria took a sip of the wine. It tastes sweet and warming.

Olive Mutukudzi music CD started playing and everyone danced, with many singing along. The song in Shona was about the big headed man who wanted to grab everything for himself.

As the party went on Maria observed two men who had been drinking silently at the corner arguing about the message in the song.

One man said the lyrics had a hidden message and were lampooning Mugabe for using Zimbabwe as his personal property. The other man was objecting to that view, when the argument built up to fearsome crescendo.

“Another glass of wine”, Nancy offered to Maria, who accepted it after protesting that they should now go home. Nancy insisted that they should stay a little bit longer. Maria was not a regular wine drinker, except on few occasions during meals when she was out for a dinner with service users.

By the time the two left the party, it was well past midnight. Maria was feeling light hearted, although she was uneasy about coming home so late.

“Maita basa”, she thanked Nancy in Shona as she dropped her off at her house.

Rushing in she opened the door and found her husband, Tapiwa watching the television in the living room. There were empty cans of beer on the floor.

Tapiwa has been drinking. Maria could tell from his red eyes and his face had a distant look, as if he could not see her clearly. From the observation of things, it looked like he has been anxiously waiting for her to come home.

Tapiwa switched off the TV the moment Maria walked in, and stood up to face her.

“Where have you been all this time Maria?” he asked her, as Maria was about to clamp up the steps to go into their bedroom.

“I was, I was, waa…”, Maria said, stammering as fear gripped her.

Before she could utter any sensible statement, Tapiwa was on her.

“You see, I caught you. You whore!” he said.

Maria; “But let me …,”  but Tapiwa interjected; “Let you what?”

He swung a fist that got Maria on her jaw, sending her staggering backwards, as she made an effort to defend herself against further blows.

The blow landed all over her chest, face and all over the body. She groaned and began to cough and vomited. There was a smell of wine in her vomit that incensed Tapiwa further; doubling his violent act.  

By the time he stopped beating, Maria had long stopped feeling pain anymore. Inside herself she resolved that this time he was not going to get away with it like that.

Tapiwa went upstairs to sleep, leaving his wife curled on the floor; where she also drifted in a deep sleep later.

In her sleep her husband violent act still haunted her. Maria dreamed about her husband coming towards her with a hammer. She dashed to the kitchen and grabbed a knife and stabbed him in the heart. Twisting the knife cruelly he fell on the ground bleeding profusely.

Terrified by the dream, she woke up screaming in the middle of the dawn. 

Moments later, she heard someone running the tapes in the bathroom. It was Tapiwa taking a bath and preparing to go work. Maria went upstairs to  Chichi’s bedroom, who was still sleeping.  She bumped into her husband on the passage to the main bedroom. The atmosphere was uncomfortably tense.

“What are doing in Chichi’s bedroom, you whore”, Tapiwa asked while still drying water from his head.

“ I am not a whore and you know it too”, Maria replied staring at him boldly.

Surprised by her boldness, Tapiwa entered the bedroom with Maria following him as he mumbled few words; “You did not tell me what kept you late last night”.

Maria ignored his mumbling.

“I wish did not come to this bloody country. Everything here stinks. Look at the whoring by women here. Hard work, cold weather and racism”, Tapiwa complained.

“Why don’t you go back to your own country, if you are fed up with England?” Maria asked.

She never been so forthright with him like this before, and even herself was taken aback.

Tapiwa finished dressing and went out to start the car and drove off. As he left Maria went into the bathroom and examined her swollen face and unkempt hair in the mirror.

After taking warm shower Maria went to sleep, she was waken up later by coughing Chichi in her bedroom.  She woke up to check but met a sleepy kid at the door, with one hand rubbing her sleepy eyes.

As Maria lifted Chichi up, she hugged her close to her chest before kissing her on the cheek and said; “We will have to leave this place soon dear”.

“Where are we going Mummy?” Chichi asked, probably thinking her entire family was going to move.

“I am moving out”, Maria said, cutting the conversation short.

Life never came to normality following the fight between Maria and her husband. They passed each other like strangers in the same house.

The following Sunday, Maria took Chichi to church without talking to Tapiwa, who  was then busy watching a soccer match between Liverpool and Northhampton on TV.

The church service at the Redeemed Church was full to capacity. The Nigerian preacher was preaching about having goals in life.

“Don't live a targetless life like gentiles” the priest exclaimed. “Ours is a spiritual journey brothers and sisters. It is a journey full of snares and traps. It is not for the weak-hearted. It is not by accident that we came here to England. Our God is above all obstacles in life. He is above racism. He is above the Home Office that is always out to deport us. He is above failure, job losses, marital problems, financial problems. Fear the giant-mover, not the giant. God, Jehovah Jireh is our giant-mover. The problem with us brothers and sisters is that we fear Goliath and not David who slew him with a stone from the sling. We are like Peter, who looked at the storm instead of focusing his eyes on the Lord. What is your vision my brother? What is your goal my sister?”

The priest pranced up and down the stage, raising the emotion of the congregation along. Maria was engrossed by the sermon. She recalled how she had prayed to God to enable her to come to England. And God has enable her to achieve one of her cherished dreams. That was despite the misgiving about contemplating divorce; which Maria thought it was her second mission and it would soon be realized.

After church Maria felt her spirit was renewed and was like Saul on the road to Damascus. The fear and ignorance that have held her back had fallen away. Maria felt she was no longer a captive of a loveless marriage. “I wasted ten years loving a man who did not care about my feelings”, Maria thought to herself.

That night Maria’s sleep did not come easy. Laying next to Tapiwa, she listened to him as he snored; and she recounted all the negative reality that characterized their marriage. “The grumpy faced husband, retrogressive traditions the engraved attitudes that refused to die, living in a lie for one’s life-time, male chauvinistic society that looks down on woman that made her marriage like a prison”, all these went through her mind as she laid in bed next to her husband.  

Maria never confided to anyone about the plights of her marriage. Even to Nancy she would disclosed partial information about what problems she endured with her husband.

Maria thought of her youth days in her home village and how her grandmother who was a Svikiro- spiritual medium once told her that she only attain happiness after long suffering.

These memories frightened her.

She had dismissed such prophecies as fantasy because she was a Christian, because true Christian considers svikiros as devil’s agents.

Putting aside those thoughts, Maria recounted the injustices she endured at the hands of her husband and resolved to leave him for good.

She had already made prior arrangement to put up at Nancy’s place with her daughter, until she found her own accommodation. Maria came to consider her husband not only as a cruel man but a bulwark to her vision of being independent. She cursed herself not making a decision to leave her old-fashioned husband long time back.

The next morning after Tapiwa left for work, Maria packed her belongings and Chichi’s  which fitted in three huge suitcases. After hurriedly packing she called a mini cab. A Muslim taxi driver helped load her stuff into the boot of the taxi. Afterward Maria looked around in the nieghbourhood as she locked the door before throwing the keys to the house into the letter box.

“Com on Mummy, let’s go”, shouted Chichi who was already seated at back seat of the taxi.

Sighing with relief, Maria turned towards the mini cab which drove away and since that day she never looked back.

Along the way before the taxi pull off, Maria dozed off with her daughter seated next to her. In short sleep she dreamed her grandmother svikiro, whispering to her. In a dream svikiro’s face was gnarled and haggard, and smiling at Maria; as if congratulating her for taking a step towards her happiness.

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