Ernest the Garden Boy
By Fred Owens
I remember Ernest the Garden Boy when I met him that March in 1997, standing in the corn field on Airport Road. It just occurred to me last night as I was trying to get to sleep that Ernest might still be there. In that garden on Airport Road, 23 years later, hoeing the corn, just like he always did. They would call him sekuru now if he was still there. Sekuru is a Shona word meaning elder.
Do you remember last week when we left off? Precious and I were heading to her room on Airport Road, to get me cleaned up. I had been traveling around Zimbabwe for several weeks, seeing the safari country at Hwange Park, seeing giraffes and zebras and ostriches, elephants, impalas, such a variety of wild game. I saw two giraffes making love. Their necks and legs are very long and it takes them hours just to get in position. The female will kick him off and kick him off until he becomes tender and patient. The male comes in raging like a bull, but she plants her feet and fights him off. It's not easy for two giraffes to couple, but it's worth the effort.
I saw Victoria Falls, the thunder of water falling 300 feet into a narrow gorge. And the Livingstone Baobab Tree which is reputed to be the largest in Africa, near to the water fall. And the hippos, so big and menacing. I traveled alone and got a little rough, so when I got to Bulawayo it was Precious who wanted my presentation to be civilized. People in Zimbabwe are especially clean I learned. For being poor they spend their money on floor wax, shoe polish and laundry soap. Clothes are washed by hand in a bucket or bath tub, not in hot water. Most people have only a cold water tap. Clothes are scrubbed within an inch of their lives and then rinsed and then hung out to dry on a line. Bulawayo has a very dry climate. In Bulawayo most summer days are 95 degrees. Clothes on a clothes line seem to dry before you even turn around. You might have an enduring image of Zimbabwe of a bull elephant with mighty curved tusks, or the lion roaring, or the ostrich prancing. You might have that image and you would be right to have it. But my enduring image of Zimbabwe is clothes drying on a line in front of Precious's small room on Airport Road. Crisp and clean.
Then she ironed everything. Because she was good at it. Most Zimbabweans are. The iron is heavy, five pounds, and has no electricity. You put it on the hot plate and get it heated. Then you iron for ten minutes until it gets cooled off. Repeat. Ironing on a towel on the floor. She ironed everything even T-shirts and boxer trunks and she did it with graceful movements like the tea ceremony. I sat on a metal chair by the door and watched. It took hours. Then I put on my new washed and ironed clothes and it felt like the silk robes of a king. I was not a poor, dirty traveler, but a man of substance and strength, which she gave to me. That's ironing in Zimbabwe. I did see African housekeeping at it best. Floors waxed and polished. Yard swept clean.
Yard sweeping is interesting because nobody has a lawn or any grass, just the hard, red clay and it is swept every few days with a twig broom. Precious would do it. I said, after we had lived together a few months that we could hire another woman to do the laundry and sweep the yard, which is what people do who can afford it. Precious said, "No, I don't want some woman coming to my house and poking into things, I will do it myself." But that was later. And the food. She cooked. On the same hot plate.Those first days together at Airport Road were very good for both of us and I will stop talking about this because it is too personal.
Ernest was out in the yard during all this. He had his own shed in the back for living. Then he would hoe the corn. I never saw a human being move so slowly as Ernest did. This really impressed me. Garden boys don't make a lot of money so there is not much point in getting it all done. Mostly he just stood there like a scarecrow with a vacant stare under his heavy brow. He wore dark blue overalls and black knee-high rubber boots. This is why I think he is still there, because why would he want to leave and where would he go?
A note on terminology. In Rhodesia and in South Africa under apartheid, it was the custom for a white man to refer to a black man as a boy. And it was the custom for the black man to call the white man boss. When the revolution took over this custom was banished. It became illegal to call a black man a boy, and I never heard any body say that. With one exception. For some reason it was still common to refer to the fellow working in the yard as a garden boy. I don't know why this was so.
A note on growing corn. Everyone in Zimbabwe plants corn when the rainy season begins in November. Everyone has the hope that the rain will come and the corn will be abundant. Ernest had surely worked hard in November cultivating that small field and planting the corn. Then he stood there and watched it grow. And stood there for hours and days. I wasn't sure -- he might have been dumb as a brick. Or maybe he had no reason to disturb the silence. The house on Airport Road was a quiet place on the edge of town. The lady of the house, who rented the room in back to Precious -- she was often gone. She was a church lady and very polite. Sometimes, even most of the day, she was gone and Precious was gone, but Ernest stood there and -- I wouldn't say he watched, I would say he was present. Being there -- that was Ernest.
African Night Descending. Ernest went back to his shed to cook his small dinner. The lady of the house was inside watching the TV with her daughter. We sat in those metal chairs in the patio drinking Bollinger's Beer. The sky was getting dark. The African night was descending.
"The sky is so big in Africa," I said.
"Yes, there are too many stars," Precious said.
"We are together now, in this evening light, but we are so different."
"We are not different. We are the same," she said
"But I don't know you."
"You know me. We are the same," she said.
I stretched my legs out under the table and watched the tiny bubbles in the beer glass on the table.
"Can I meet your family?"
"You will meet them. Aunt Janet and Aunt Winnie will come here tomorrow," she said.
Next Time. Aunt Janet and Aunt Winnie came to meet me. We rented a car and took them for a ride. We bought them plenty of beer and fried chicken. They seemed to like me.
Here in Santa Barbara. We've had good rain. I have a three-month supply of prescription medicine. We have a two-pound sack of shelled walnuts, plus many other goodies in the pantry, extra coffee, some beer and wine. We are old-time campers and we will do just fine.