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Chipo’s black-mud dark skin shines bright as her body absorbs and basks in the still quiet red of the morning sun. The sun pops out red like the head of a new-born. When a tinge of its gleam red rests on Chipo’s silent round brown eyes, it makes them look more like a deep river. The sun introduces Sofina compound from the back where Chipo takes a quick bath. Her father snores; she can hear his muffled snores escape from the hut made out of scrapes of garbage and dirt. Her father’s hut looks like a molehill. Chipo’s 19-year-old thin body floods with sweat as the sun licks its skin and her oily-black matted hair catches the dregs of dust that’s propelled by soft wind.
She cooks Maotwana and Pap, Brian walks in with a smile, he whistles. The curry spice and pap aroma remind him of Chipo. He is intoxicated; Brian kicks a box of Raja spice by mistake.
She points at him with a wooden spoon, ‘And then wena, what’s going on. What got you this happy you even kick my spice?’
He scratches his tiny bald head, ‘Eish, sorry Mama, it’s a mistake,’
‘You are not answering my question Brian.’
‘Will let you know, soonest,’ he screams and immediately takes off to his room.
Brian is so elated that even the food hardly makes it down his throat.
‘Ya neh, the new Makoti must be a mermaid, what’s up, you can’t even eat?’
‘Oh Mama, she is so beautiful, one of the finest Zimbabweans you see on TV. Smart, respectful and so Englishified, do you get me?’
‘Ah, le-Zim, once you date those ones there is never calling it quits, otherwise you will go crazy buti,’ his brother mocks.
‘Nonsense!’ the mother replies.
‘But mama Mapoti can curse you, look at those Ngwende boys. Once your woman cheats with them she is gone for good. Those well-endowed brutes know how to flog a woman, they bang her until she squirts buckets of orgasm,’ he says and laughs alone but Brian is annoyed. The mother is unconventional but today she throws that out of the window.
She tightens her lips and frowns her face, ‘shut up you fool.’
‘Brian knows it, take their bavu on credit; they will show up at your house even though you didn’t show it to them. You don’t play with those ones. Cheat nje, you will have to raise funds to go fetch your penis in Zim’,’ he adds and laughs.
Sofina looks like a tiny, war-torn village. The air, landscape and water are not friendly to its inhabitants. The air is heavy, thick and very dirty to breathe; there are abandoned mines a few kilometres out of the compound. On the left, the flat-topped mountains stretch to the north. There is a huge rock that acts as an agent of hope for existence. Its beauty is what keeps the villagers sane; the only beautiful conversation they have with outsiders is about the boulder—the music it makes at night, the animals it attracts and the well. It rests under the boulder which provides them with cold water even under extreme hot conditions. On the right, the desert lies flat bare before the empty sky. The landscape around it is absent of distinctive gatherings of trees or other landmarks except for the strange dust and pile of debris. But Sofina has a huge Baobab tree where most gatherings happen. Rubbish lie around in bags and there are problems with fleas, cockroaches and rats. The first hut at the entrance of Sofina has gore smeared at its makeshift door. It has a sign that reads: ‘Please ensure doors remain shut to prevent rats entering the room.’ The owner, an old Malawian man, has passed. Before he committed suicide, he would bleed severely on the anus and Chipo took great care of him like she does her own father. Communal areas in the compound are filthy with cockroaches, vermin, blood and vomit. The inhabitants of Sofina are undocumented faceless and voiceless migrants. Huts made of garbage and dirt, straggling hutments and shanties which closely balanced against each other, are sandwiched between the R40 national road and Sofina.
At the pick-up spot, under the Baobab, a Zimbabwean hag always sits there early in the morning before dawn and yodels Charles Charambas’ Buruka. She punctuates the holy song with paroxysms of laughter and wails before she preaches:
‘John teaches us that the world is passing away and so is its desire. All you paedophiles, rapists and murderers shall burn in hell.’
A half-drunken young man with bloodshot eyes, armpits that reek of dried Kapenta fish and a mouth that stinks like a sheeben pit-toilet where mqomboti drinkers frequent, whispers to his friends:
‘I wonder which John was more sophisticated because the other one says there is only the sky above us.’ He takes a bite from Matemba and moulds Sadza on his right palm with the agility of an impatient man who suffers from a heavy hangover. They all break the morning silence with paroxysms of laughter and pleasantries. Another fair-skin thin woman, who wears sorrow in her face, clutches a baby whose eyes are closed. Her face is sagged like a dry pawpaw peel; she looks like an unfed stray dog. Chipo reads The Violent Gestures of Life by Given Mukwevho. The mother holds the boy, her hands covered in gore. Whenever she is buried in the pages of the book, Chipo feels annoyed. The novel reminds her that the worst prison is Sofina, a compound where they are held captive for being poor migrants. The near-death body of the boy who bleeds in the anus makes her feel like it’s indeed the end of the world. She feels useless at the sight of the boy. Her eyes are covered in jewels of fresh tears. What she reads in the novel is what she experiences from her father, boys and little girls. It’s a fiction brought to life.
‘What’s wrong with the boy?’
‘He is dying,’ she sobs softly.
Chipo tucks the novel away immediately as Father Nicholas arrives. She helps the woman get the boy on the back of the van. As he tucks the shirt-tail into his pants, his hands run over the rise and fall of a six-pack, courtesy of crunches and the weight he lifts and his very strict eating regimen. The intensity of his unearthly blue eyes is so unbearable that whenever his employees look at him, they have to avert their own eyes in fear. He pushes back his graceful brown hair before he speeds off with the woman. Father Nicholas always goes with his dog everywhere—even to church.
The preaching hag stares at space and declares in a whisper, ‘poor woman, she will lose this one too.’
‘What happened to him?’ Chipo asks.
‘Only God knows my child. Only God knows. This poor woman has already lost two boys,’ the woman adds. The two boys are buried as paupers at the back of their mother’s shanty hut.
At the watermelon farm, 12-year-old Mpho clutches a hoe on the right hand and a toy on the left. He is stunted, bald and hardly speaks to anyone unless when spoken to. He digs one inch into the soil, Chipo throws the seeds in and pushes them deep. The spaces between them are three to four feet apart, with at least eight feet between the rows. The others work the land while a few old women keep the soil free of weeds by hoe. Chipo also helps cover the seeds with a layer of mulch.
She lifts a container of food and says to the boy who looks half-dead, ‘Do you want?’
They usually sit on the wooden bench planted under a Morula tree.
‘Want what?’ they boy asks.
‘The food,’ she points to the plate of Sadza and Madora that lies on the ground.
‘Where is baba?’ she asks but the boy pretends like he didn’t hear a thing and continues chewing Madora.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Oh, nice. Do you know what it means?’
‘Yes, it means gift.’
‘Mine is Chipo, it also means gift.’
‘What kind of gifts are we?’ the boy asks.
‘You are also not sure right?’
‘No, I know. I am just surprised why a young innocent boy would ask such a painful question.’
‘Because being a gift in a society where you are less appreciated as a human being is more like being a curse—it’s painful.’
‘We are each other’s gifts; from today I am your gift you are mine. Right?’
The boy wears a wry smile and answers, ‘Okay.’
‘Good, and how about Amai?’
He shifts his eyes away from him, bites his fingers and mutters a reply,
‘Dead! My father is a South African he ran away.’
‘Who do you stay with?’
‘Father Nicholas,’ he responds. Chipo feels like her heart escaped from her chest and stuck in her throat. She closes her eyes and says a short prayer.
The moon shines brighter than the gaudy eyes of a new-born. They are overcrowded on the back of Father Nicholas’s van like Matemba fish. Under the auspices of the bright moon, Chipo can see the stretch of the dirt road that snakes to Sofina. A purple cloud of dust chases the van like the shadow of an owl at night. At the pick-up spot, their loud conversations and yodels of the old woman scare away an owl.
‘Someone kicked the bucket,’ says the unkempt drunkard young man and they all laugh like hyenas. The old woman delivers a plea in the idiom of her mother tongue:
‘Oh rufu, what do you want in our already dead compound. Do we wear you like diamond necklaces on our necks?’
Brian usually waits at the Baobab but today his truck is packed next to the boulder. Chipo sees it and feels her heart skip like it would leap out of her mouth.
‘Mudiwa wangu, how are you?’ Brian smells fresh.
‘I am all kinds of goods and you sweets?’
‘Also good thanks.’
‘Baba vako vari sei?’
‘Hey wena, you are charming me with this Shona. He is well I guess; I haven’t gotten into the hut yet. Who teach you all these Shona words?’
He advances towards her and grabs her waist; runs his coarse fingers on her lips, ‘None other than my wife-to-be Chipo.’ Before she can reply, he sucks her delicate lips; the kiss makes a splosh sound.
‘Let’s get into the car,’ before they can get inside, he has already taken her panties off. Her legs vibrate; his trouser is pitched on the zip like a tent. The truck shakes like a tree that fights against strong wind.
Brian looks at Chipo and smiles; her head is on his lap, then they both laugh, ‘Brian, please bring back my panties.’
‘Are you satisfied?’ he asks.
‘Like a camel after drinking the entire stream,’ she answers.
‘I have something to tell you,’ she says while struggling to pull her panties on.
‘I want to go home where I will be part of a better caste.’
‘I understand, but first leave Sofina.’
‘Yes, that’s my plan.’
When Chipo opens her father’s door an army of blow flies escape to the walls; a thin blanket of putrid smell covers her nose, her father lies on the floor.
She runs to him. ‘Baba, what’s wrong?’ her lower lip is covered in tears.
‘Mwanasikana wangu, I fell,’ he responds in a defeated voice.
‘Don’t cry Mwanasikana wangu, I will be fine,’ Chipo gets closer and tries to help him; she slips from a pool of faeces and stumbles. She lights a paraffin candle and mops the floor.
He stands upright with an assertive and dominant posture, chin up, chest out; shoulders back and stomach in with his Bible spread open on the pulpit. Father Nicholas makes Sunday a day to surrender one’s self to the will of God. Even when frail at 70, he still maintains his soldier stature. Whenever he preaches the congregation sneezes and blow their noses. High pitched Amen and hallelujahs fill the entire church and hug the walls like the first note of dirge at the funeral. Some even stand up and raise both their hands, the surrender fashion, while others sob softly with their heads bent low. Father Nicholas often takes the place of Jesus in people’s lives. He has manipulative ways to tell the congregation that they can never be blessed unless he approves. He is insecure to the point that he actually developed a doctrine in order to stop people from leaving his church.
Father Nicholas knows all the people; he uses the old hag who sits under the Baobab and preaches to source information about his congregants. The woman would dig up information about the people, their age, kids and other such details then pass them on to Father Nicholas.
Father Nicholas descends from the pulpit; he holds a mike and reads from Romans 13:1-7 and grabs Mukamutara, a Rwandan woman, by the hand. Chipo looks at him and feels sick, Father Nicholas whispers in the poor woman’s ears; this provokes fresh nausea and makes Chipo’s stomach boil.
He holds the mike closer to his lips and speaks with an undivided authority, ‘Who is the man who murdered your husband?’ The woman looks at him and breaks into tears.
She whimpers and answers, her voice trembles, ‘He fled Father.’
‘I can see the roaming spirit of your late son who died in the Rwandan genocide, did you fetch his remains?’ The woman can’t speak anymore. Her throat is shaky, what comes out are barely intelligible. When she attempts to speak, she sounds like a drunken person.
‘Now, Second Samuel 11:4 says “So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her,”’ he whispers this message to the woman.
Chipo and other groups who exchange pleasantries about Father Nicholas’s spiritual prowess stand at the gate as he speeds off with the woman and her two children planted on the back of the van like stranded dogs. Chipo feels like a part of her has fled with the car, her eyes are moist. Her stomach boils with anger.
When she gets home that evening, Chipo learns that the mother of the three boys had taken her own life.
‘Baba, what’s going on?’ she finally plucks up the courage to confront him. She is tired of the rumours. The old man lies on his stomach; he keeps quiet and stares at space. Chipo holds the reflex of his fingers and presses them harder, brushes the back of his head like a mother does her child. He remembers his late mother’s care when as a boy he broke his leg. He yelps; she wipes off his tears.
‘I arrived in Sofina when you were still 7 years old, your brother and mother died in the Limpopo River. They drowned, I lost a part of me, but at least I arrived here. Father Nicholas gave me shelter and another chance to see my only child grows,’ he coughs but no blood splutters.
‘What’s happening, I know what’s going on but I want to hear it from you?’ she insists.
‘The farm owner subjects us to torture and sexual harassment. I know you have an idea what’s going on.’
He moans before he continues, ‘If any of our friends or family members manages to run away from the compound, the owner directs his vengeance towards our boys, girls and women. But Father Nicholas is a good man. God bless him.’
‘One day he sodomised me and then after dug my anus with a shank.’
‘What is a shank Baba?’
‘It’s a glass knife.’
‘But why didn’t we run away Baba?’
‘Mwanasikana wangu, there is no law for people like us. We are here through the back door. We are invisible to the laws and authorities of this country—and its people. But we must appreciate. So there is nowhere to run to. This is a better home for us. Father Nicholas is a God-sent man.
‘I used to work like you, from six o’clock in the morning and we would work all day, ending late when it’s dark. I owe him a lot of money.’
‘Baba I just hate the fact that we are trapped into a perpetual cycle of debt?’
‘Not anymore Mwanasikana wangu, Father Nicholas has already asked permission from God to repay himself. And he did,’ he blurts.
‘How did he repay himself Baba?’ the silence that follows is noisy. From the reflex of his fingers Chipo can feel his heart pulsate, he sweats like a dog asphyxiated by shreds of a broken glass.”
‘Father Nicholas raped you Mwanasikana wangu, he ordered me to spike your ice cream with sleeping pills’ the dead silence is strange, it screams louder than darkness in a cave. Chipo’s father tells her that Father Nicholas ordered him to come with her in his house where everything happened.
Brian parks under the tree, Chipo looks weary and exhausted.
‘What’s the bad news?’ Brian asks.
‘I want to go. On Thursday I want you to help me and other people who agree to escape, is that possible?’ her eyes are sharp and the fire they hold is so strong.
‘Anything for you, there is an abandoned house where you guys can rent. In the meantime I will pay my love,’ he gives her a promise hug.
‘Thursday morning around 4:00 you must be in Sofina. I beg you,’ she pleads.
The morning is fresh and birds chirp. Chipo wakes up very early to visit Mpho and the other kids and also to collect her father’s diapers from Father Nicholas. She walks into his house. When she gets there the kids sit outside with their knees tucked up their chins. When he sees her, Mpho runs to meet and give her a warm long hug. In a few minutes she feels her blouse get wet.
‘I know boy, all will be fine,’ she assures him. The boy nods and uses the back of his hand to wipe off his tears.
‘How many are you here?’ the boy just lifts up four fingers. He can’t speak; he fights back tears and tries to swallow the remains of sorrow stuck on his screams-tormented throat. Chipo knows he means the two children, he and Mukamutara.
‘Usually we remain slaves to him because we take amounts from him for feeding our children and to afford other day to day expenses,’ says Mukamutara. The actual thing that Father Nicholas takes advantage of is that most of the immigrants, especially women, are illiterate. He manipulates records.
‘It’s bad, so what do the children do when they are not helping in the farm?’ Chipo asks.
‘They cut grass for the animals. My kids can’t walk properly. They all walk with their legs opened,’ Chipo looks at Mukamutara and her eyes fill with tears.
‘Tonight, I came to give us a ticket out of here.’
‘I can do anything just for my children to live like human beings, not like animals to satisfy the sexual gratification of a sick pastor,’ she says.
Chipo asks Father Nicholas if Mukamutara can visit with her kids to return on Thursday. He agrees and drives them to Sofina.
It is Tuesday and only a few villagers managed to arrive under the Baobab. It is eight o’clock at night, dogs howl. At first the owl shrieks and hisses but shortly before Chipo begins to speak, the owl cackles and screeches.
‘Now that’s a bad sign,’ says Chipo’s father who sits and leans against the Baobab.
‘Baba, please don’t spoil this,’ he immediately keeps quiet.
‘Today we are here because I planned an escape. We all know that we are being treated like slaves; we virtually have no rights as most of us if not all have no national identity cards which are a basic document to prove our existence. In other words we are ghosts…’
‘Even if we can escape, who will feed us, what are we going to eat? At least Father Nicholas has given us shelter—a roof over our heads, what more could we ask for. I can’t afford to run away with only clothes and nothing to start a new life, never!’ a voice interrupts.
‘I love my people; I had to summon the courage to stand up for you because I have greater love for you. I can even sacrifice my life for my people,’ she declares.
‘Sofina is not the end, there grass is greener on the other side.’
‘She is deceptive; she sleeps with the pastor now she is being used to source information. She wants to know if we are organised or not. She wants to take the information to Father Nicholas,’ another angry voice screams.
Chipo gathers those who agreed and tells them to be at the Baobab at 4:00 am Thursday.
‘With only your clothes and nothing else,’ she declares.
He lifts his glass of red Neitherberg Baron as he speaks to Chipo about his life at the military and how he was a respected man. Chipo looks at him, she forks the shish kebab and allows its tender juices to cover and hug her palate.
‘So, Chipo, to what do I owe such a beautiful visit?’
She doesn’t look him in the eyes. Her head is bent low softly, she bites her finger nails.
‘Father, I came to tell you how much of a father you are to me. The care and the spiritual guidance you provide are just beyond,’ she says.
‘Is that all?’
‘No father and to also ask for paraffin on credit.’
He stands up and prances about, ‘Fuck it, I knew you mother fucking Zimbabweans demand a lot.’
‘I give you fingers you want to gnaw the whole fucking hand,’ he snaps but Chipo keeps mum.
‘Now go to the fucking storage, pour a litre, only a litre huh. If you pour more than that, I will find out you conniving bitch,’ he is drunk but still stable.
First Chipo drinks five glasses of whisky then breaks into Father Nicholas’s room. Immediately, as he tries to lift his head, Chipo already sits on his chest. She grabs the dagger with both her hands and clenches it like an eagle catching fish with its claws. She lifts it up with her full might that her spinal cord burns. When it lands on his throat, it tears his skin deep into the trachea. Chipo repeats the same thrust several times until her hands tremble. She pants like a tired dog. Blood spurts on the sheets, shit gushes and vomit covers his chest. His body lies on the bed, Chipo first cries then strips naked and sits in the house then drinks his wine. She douses the whole house in paraffin and waits until it is Thursday morning at 2:00 am before she strikes a match and burns down the house.
At 4:00 am Thursday morning, both Brian and the small group are prepared to take off. Brian hugs Chipo, she looks at all the kids and their agonised mothers, then gives all of them a hug. She still reeks of alcohol and fresh blood even though she ran a quick bath at home.
The truck takes off, purple smoke follows it. The moon is up and the kids can see the house gutted down by fire.
Immediately as the truck makes it out of Sofina, Chipo looks at the women and children in the back of the truck through the rear windshield and waves at them. She wears an eternal, beautiful smile. The women wave at her with the children who sit on their laps. Chipo looks at Brian:
‘Thank you, you are so amazing.’ Before Brian can answer, one woman at the back of the truck calls out her name.
She opens the little window on the windshield and tilts her head a little inside so that Chipo doesn’t miss anything she says,
‘Have you an idea that your late mother’s father was a white man?’
‘No, I didn’t know.’
She rubs her eyes off dust,
‘I feel it is necessary to tell you since you have freed us from him. Father Nicholas was your uncle.’
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash