November 8, 2009
Patience smiles. All the time. She has a round, pretty face and when she laughs she throws her head back and claps her hands together in delight. But as far as I can see, Patience does not have a lot to laugh about.
She is a teacher at the school on the farm. A ragtag group of about 150 children, most of whom have nothing to do with the farm workers but need their stomachs filled by the feeding program. They walk the 10 – 15 km from the squalid Hatcliffe extension, an extension of the squalor of the original Hatcliffe but with more plastic and corrugated iron walls.
There are three teachers. Patience is a newcomer, the other two are older and more jaded. The pay is paltry but the job comes with a small two-bedroomed house and Patience is able to feed her family with fresh meat and vegetables off the farm. Her family consists of her husband, Able, and her three younger sisters. Her parents have both died of AIDS but she and her sisters are all healthy. She is newly married and happily so.
The house is immaculate. The cement floors are kept polished and clean curtains made from floral sheets hang at the windows. The cooking is done on an open fire outside and the single pot used for this purpose hangs on a nail near the back door.
Patience leads an orderly existence but has very little money. She is an employee of the Ministry of Education and subjected to the sinkhole of the Zimbabwean economy. Each month her salary buys less and less. Whilst her essentials are covered, her husband’s salary as a teacher in Harare does not stretch to cover his transport and that of her sisters as well as their school fees.
Patience is 23 years old and the anchor of this family. Her husband is a pleasant, mild-mannered man of the same age. I see him dressed in his carefully pressed clothes, setting off for work very early in the morning when I am coming back from the dairy. Patience has 3 outfits. I know this because she comes to my house every day at 5 o’clock to teach my children Shona. As we are about to go and live in France they won’t be using it any time soon but I want it to perculate into who they are.
Jono is 8, Amber and Tom 6. I can see they would rather be outside playing and their legs swing impatiently under the dining room table. They like Patience though and I can see that she is a born teacher.
She does not pace and hammer phrases on the anvil of small ears. She plays. She starts with the basics, and even though my children have heard Shona their whole lives, this is where she needs to start. They play Mahumbwe – or “house”.
There is some dispute because Amber is the only candidate to be mother and smugly christens herself “Amai” and Jono, being the oldest, lays claim to Baba. This leaves Tom in a demoted position and a compromise is found in munin’ina, young brother. By rights Patience should be Mufindisi (teacher) but the day she announces with a coy smile that she is expecting a baby we rechristen her Mainini, little mother.
Over the months, as Patience’s belly swells and rounds so does our friendship. A whole new vocabulary blossoms. Mwana Baby. Fara, happiness and as her due date approaches, faranuka, unbounded happiness.
I rifle through my possessions and come up with some passable maternity clothes and all the baby clothes I hadn’t been able to part with until then. We cluck and croon over them and hold them against her tummy. I even knit her a small jersey although my enthusiasm exceeds my ability. I buy her some wool, white, to be on the safe side, and soon, as she sits supervising my children, clouds of soft blankets and bonnets are conjured by her flying needles.
All the children in Patience’s family are girls and her husband was the only boy out of a family of 6 children. We are placing bets on this being a boy. I run Patience into town for her ante-natal checkups and tell her that if she has the slightest twinge to let me know and I will drive her to the hospital. This is only practical during the night because I drive into town each day to work but I give her my work number and my cell number just in case there is a problem. I will rush back to the farm to fetch her if needs be.
She throws her head back and laughs, her white teeth exposed in her perpetual good humour.
“You worry about everything” she says
“My grandmother is coming, she has had many children”.
Yes, but mothers and grandmothers have been dying giving birth for thousands of years I want to say but thrust my numbers at her again, this time to give to Able.
Mornings are busy in my house. I round up my three sleepy children and load them into the car with my neighbour’s two sons. I take everyone to school and she picks them up. I also sometimes deliver milk from the dairy to the school and on the morning in question my trunk is full of sachets of milk. I have four children on the back seat and the oldest in the front passenger seat. We set off taking care to avoid the potholes and large puddles after last nights storm.
To get to the main road we have to drive along a 7km ribbon of dirt track. This temperamental thouroughfare has been cut into a game park and often we startle a herd of zebras or if we are lucky, have to stop to let a giraffe lope across the road. But this morning there are no giraffes. As we round the bend I have to slam on brakes because there is Able. I stop on the edge of a puddle and one look at him tells me all I need to know.
“Where is Patience?”
“She is at home. She is having some pains”.
I shoo Rory on to the back seat and Able climbs in. We drive towards the school, slipping and sliding in the mud. I pray that we don’t get stuck because there is no-one here to help get me out this morning. Patience is waiting at the door. She is beaming.
“Mangwanani,” Good morning
She looks good although I can see that she has not slept much.
“Mangwanani, marara sei”Good morning I venture, how are you?
“Ndarara kana marara wo” I am well if you are well, she responds before being gripped by a contraction.
“How long have you been having contractions?” I ask, concerned by the grey tint to her skin.
“Since yesterday, and they are becoming painful”.
“Get in the car” I say, to the astonishment of my already squished children.
Able looks at me questioningly.
“You too” I say.
So Able sits in the front passenger seat and his labouring wife sits on his lap.
My little car lurches bravely forward and after a few scares we reach the main road.
I drive straight to the hospital and give Able my cellphone and a card with my work number on it.
I drop the children at school and unload the milk. I straighten out my suit, put a brush through my hair and head for work.
After my morning meeting I phone the hospital but no-one can give me any information. I think of Patience all day and am so excited for her.
Able does not call.
When I leave my office for the day I see him standing next to my car. He is caving in on himself. He is hunched and defeated.
“What happened?” I say, feeling an anger I cannot direct.
“The baby was big”
“He was stuck”
“There was no place in the operating theatre.”
I cannot move or speak.
“Then there was a lot of pain and a lot of blood”.
“They took her for an operation and took the baby out. The baby is dead.”
“And Patience? How is Patience?”
“Her uterus tore and they had to remove it.”
“She is going to be alright but she is very sad”.
“What can we do?” I ask
In truth I want to slap this man. Hard. Why didn’t he scream and shout. Why didn’t he phone me. I could have tried to move her to another hospital. Why? Why? Why? I find his meekness insulting. I want to rush to her side but know it is not my place.
“She is very sad and does not want to see anybody. She does not want to see anybody” he says, shaking his head.
He climbs into the car and we drive home in silence.
Time passes. Patience is with her grandmother.
One day I return from work and there she is, or at least a thinner more wan version of herself.
I tell the children to go ahead inside and I walk up to her.
I take both her hands in mine and wait for her to speak.
“I am very disappointed” she says, and her chin quivers.
When we are surrounded by poverty and suffering it is usually not difficult to come up with at least one way to help. But I am at a loss.
Patience goes back to work and she continues to come to the house in the evenings but she no longer teaches my children. We talk or cook dinner together. I give her books and she tiptoes around her loss.
Her visits dwindle and soon the day comes when I will be leaving the farm forever. I have not seen Patience for a few days and wonder if I should seek her out today.
I have slept badly and finally get out of bed before sunrise. Mist has settled over the garden and it takes me a while before I am sure that I have heard something outside.
I open the back door and pull my dressing gown to me. The sound is coming from the front of the house. I walk around wondering if I should be carrying a stick.
A group of some thirty children, mostly barefoot, are gathered in front of Patience. Our eyes meet and she lifts her hands and launches what feel like a thousand small voices before joining in with her own lovely voice.
Ngaisimudzirwe zita rayo
Inzwai miteuro yedu
Isu, mhuri yayo.
Huya mweya komborera
Huya mweya woutsvene
Isu mhuri yayo.
God bless Africa,
Let her fame spread far and wide!
Hear our prayer,
May God bless us!
Come, Spirit, come!
Come! Holy Spirit!
Come and bless us, her children!
I feel a tearing in a part of myself I cannot name.
Patience steps forward. Her eyes look tired but bright. She hands me a parcel wrapped carefully in newspaper.
I open it in front of eager eyes.
“I am sorry it is a bit damp still” she says
“I only finished it very late last night and then I washed it and ironed it”.
I unfurl a piece of white cloth. It is a table cloth, and on it are hand-embroidered children. About 150 of them. And at the centre there is the face of a smiling woman.
I left the farm that day with my suitcases full of resolve. The books I would send, the money I would raise. I carried that cloth with me in my hand luggage. If I hold it to my face I can still detect the faintest wisp of woodsmoke.
Weeks after I left the farm was taken over by Mugabe’s militia. The school was burned down and the teachers were beaten as opposition sympathizers.
I have not yet been able to find Patience. But I will not give up.