By Fred Owens
"Precious ....... My name is Precious," she said. She sat across the table and looked at me. Precious was wearing large gold hoop earrings and a white knit sleeveless shirt over well-fitted black jeans. Her hair was short and natural. She had bright red lips, but I think that was just me imagining. She twizzled her gin and tonic looking down, then looking up at me with her fabulous big smile.
"Your name is Precious," I said. What was I supposed to say? Quickly rejecting thoughts of saying I never met anyone named Precious before. Or another big thought, Can I touch your hair? No, creepy. So I started talking with Nellie, her companion. Nellie spoke better English anyway. Nellie was there, at the Palace Hotel in Bulawayo in what was probably a professional capacity. I wasn't interested in Nellie. She was kind of stout and rough and too smart. I was a little wary of her.
But Precious was fresh and bursting with life. She may have been playing a game, but there was so much more going on. I wanted to talk with her, so I asked her her name. Precious did not speak English as well and of course I knew no Ndbele, except Nkomo which means cow and a few other words.
I had been enjoying a solitary beer on the large shaded patio of the hotel on a quiet evening. Joseph the waiter had been serving me. I already felt Joseph and I had been best friends for a long time. Good waiters are like that. The Palace Hotel was a colonial remnant in the heart of Bulawayo. A black man could not get a drink there until 1980 when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Nothing had change since then. They still had the large carvings in the lobby, of pseudo-African chieftains, the kind of carvings that old Rhodesians could ignore because they were wooden dummies. Except the Rhodesians had been scattered when Robert Mugabe and his Shona soldiers took over.
Joseph was mid-50, had probably worked in this patio serving drinks for his adult life, seeing people come and go. "Joseph, could you buy those ladies a drink? " I said. I pointed to the only two ladies in the patio. I never did things like that. My whole life I was much too shy to try anything like "buy these ladies a drink." But I did that night. And Joseph went over and whispered into Nellie's ear. The two ladies looked at me smiling and came over to my table. So began the next seven years of my life. I was no longer walking alone.
Joseph hovered tactfully, black pants, baggy white shirt, loose tie, thinning grey hair, happy but understated smile because he knew something was happening. "We have some nice roast chicken if ...." That sounds good, I said, would you ladies like to eat? Precious said yes. She had a husky voice with warm tones, quiet. She had an athletic build with strong shoulders.
"Where do you live?" I asked her. She said, I live in Luveve at the house of my grandfather Mr. Mataka. Luveve means butterfly.... "So there are lots of butterflies in Luveve?" I said. No, she said, that is not how we do it. I will tell you. There was a man who owned a small store and he could never sit still. He would always jump up from his chair and move his arms about up and down and be excited, so we called him Luveve --- Mr. Butterfly. So that was the name of the store and that is where the bus stopped, at Luveve, so now that is the name of the town. "Is Mr. Butterfly still there?" I said. No, he died.
Jospeh brought out big plates of roasted chicken, with piles of sadza, the stiff and white cornmeal mush which is the staple food of all Zimbabwe, and a side dish of boiled collard greens. Precious and Nellie ate with gusto. The patio was quiet. Few customers, soft music, muted kitchen noises, no traffic noise from the street. I was beginning to forget everything or where we were or what we were doing. For no reason I looked at Precious and said, "You're a pretty lady, you're sweet like a bowl of raspberry sherbert. " She smiled. What is raspberry sherbert, she asked. "Ice cream. You are sweet like ice cream."
I was embarrassed. I had been in Africa for one month and had absolutely not looked at any women in that way, had not even considered, you know. just had not considered. There was a huge barrier of race and culture. That barrier didn't bother me. I would not challenge it. Except the barrier was down that evening.
We left the patio and walked over to the lobby, the three of us, kind of awkward, but I was thinking and then I said to Nellie, Did you need cab fare? I pulled out a large note of Zimbabwe dollars. She took it and left. Precious and I looked at each other and then looked at the stairs going up to the room. We climbed the stairs together. I could not believe this. I was going to love the African Queen and her name is Precious.
The next morning we went out for breakfast. I can't remember what time it was when we got up. I didn't have a watch or a travel alarm. The bathroom was down the hall, like an old-fashioned hotel, The bathtub was huge, could easily drown a six- footer. The commode and toilet could have been cleaner. I didn't care. I had a companion. She had no interest in improving her English and did not care to teach me Ndebele. We would do fine without too many words. We talked all the time and said the same things over and over. We ate breakfast at a sunny cafe. I don't remember what we ate. She said, Fred, you know I need new shoes. I was not a fool. I knew what to do. When a woman says she needs new shoes, that means she needs new shoes. I said I will buy them for you. And jeans, she said. I need new jeans, Love in Africa can be so transactional. This was too easy. We were taking wonderful advantage of each other.
We got her the jeans. Then, standing outside the little store, she looked at me and said, "You know that I love you, but you are dirty. You need to clean up. You know that white people smell bad to me. You must come with me to my place and freshen up. And we will do something about those clothes." So I got my things from the hotel and we took a cab to her place on Airport Road.
What Happened to Nyanga? Well, I went to Nyanga and other beautiful places, but I decided to skip ahead this week and introduce Precious because she is the main character in this story.
The News. The news is not good. This African story is offered to you as a kind of relief. For the short while that you read it you can imagine yourself in Africa where life can be very wonderful. Sometimes.
Be well, stay healthy, be kind to your friends and neighbors, and fear not,