On the Way to Smiley's House
By Fred Owens
Details and depth do not come easily to me. I could write about the chain on the gate. Next to the mailbox on Shottery Crescent. The chain held the gate shut, but it also served as a door bell. A visitor would grab the chain and give it a shake. It was so quiet in Bulawayo that we could hear that distinctive sound of a rattling chain out by the street. That meant we had visitors. And the heavy manilla rope we used to make a swing for a limb of the pepper tree. It lasted only a few days before it was stolen. That's how you learn. Nobody steals a rope in America, it's not worth the trouble, but the will steal it in Africa. Same with the garden hose -- which must be put in the house at night. Of course lots of the neighbors had five and six foot walls for security, and some had dogs to scare off intruders. Our yard was openly fenced all around with a light wire mesh,.......... I could write about the poinsettia hedge that lined the driveway, with so many bright red blossoms..... The lantana bush was on the other side of the front yard. The lantana, which is grown in appreciation in Santa Barbara becomes an invasive pest in Zimbabwe, covering thousands of acres with impenetrable brush. ..... These are details, as for depth, that is coming. My daughter said to me before she flew back to America. She said, I don't think you really love her. Or maybe it became a question, Do you really love her? I could not answer. But Precious swept the yard almost every day with a twig broom wearing a pretty wrap skirt, seemingly without effort. She swept the yard like a poem. So gracefully. The bare red-clay ground was smooth and hard as a rock in the summer heat.
I loved her, but I didn't want to marry her unless I could distinguish her in some way from her cousins. They all blended together. Too many cousins, strong and pretty, more modest in bearing than Precious, who was the oldest and first of her generation, first born of Peter Lovemore who was first born of Grace and Patrick Mataka. Grace, who was deceased but clearly full figured or, as they say in Botswana, traditionally built. Mr. Mataka himself was of a smaller size, and not tall. So you could see who inherited the larger physique -- Molly was a big woman, the oldest daughter, and Peter Lovemore who was a big man, and he was very black, the blackest of all Mataka's children. And the smartest, that was Peter Lovemore's tragedy. He had a brilliant mind and no way to put it to use. He should have had an education or some path of advancement. Instead he worked at a foundry and stole small loads of scrap metal when the boss wasn't looking. Unless the boss was looking and was in fact implicated in the theft. So Peter Lovemore used his big size and impressive brain for petty crime. And womanizing. And spousal abuse. And violence against small dogs and children. He was a hateful man who scarred Precious in ways that were not visible. She might have this sullen look on her face at times, caused by an unconscious memory of her father's brutality. We called him Mr. T because he only drank tea and never drank beer, which is unusual in Africa where everybody except the church people drink too much beer.
From our house it was a twenty minute walk to Nketa Nine, home of Smiley, Precious's uncle. You took the walk out the front gate, left down Shottery Crescent to Wellington then right a short distance to the Plumtree bottle store, a big and busy market with its own bakery for fresh bread daily, and a butcher shop next door where hung a half a cow on a chain, ready for your steak order to be cut fresh. Cold beer, shoe polish, fruits and vegetables. Whatever you needed. Then past the Plumtree bottle store, down a slanting side road, with country-side blonde and grassy fields on the left, and a row of modest houses on the right side -- houses with garden growing chimolios, although that did not distinguish these houses because every garden in Bulawayo grew chimolios, which were a kind of collard green growing on a stalk. They grew abundantly and carelessly and you just picked a few leaves before dinner to make your relish. Hardly ever saw it sold in the market because everyone grew it, but did see many tomatoes sold in the market and few in gardens -- trickier growing tomatoes, what with pests and the need for constant watering and few people had hoses, it was bucket by bucket of water for thirsty plants. And sweet potatoes. Don't forget the sweet potatoes. Everybody loved them. And the baobob tree -- in that we were unusual because they don't grow in the climate of Bulawayo, it's too cool at 4,400 feet. But I planted one baobab from seed just to see if I could. That was in 1997. I like to think it's still there growing, but frost probably killed it after we left.
Nketa Nine. I never asked the obvious question, Why do they call it Nketa Nine and where is Nketa Eight? Well. I never asked too many questions -- that doesn't work in Africa, in my opinion. We could walk to Smiley's at a slow saunter in twenty minutes. He was the uncle of Precious, maybe the favorite. Smiley was small like his father and not big like Mr. T, his older brother. He was a tough little bastard. I imagined him walking home at night in the dark from the beer hall. No one disturbed him. He walked with strength and confidence and he was well known. His mustache fit his face, and he did smile, but not that often. He worked at the tire factory and rode his bike there, saving his bus fare so he could drink his beers at the open air beer saloon near his house. I like to think he was faithful to his wife which means, in Africa, that he didn't fool around outrageously. That's another question I never asked -- who is sleeping with who. I just got the distinct impression that monogamy was honored in the breach, and the women strayed too, except they didn't have bragging rights. And this lack of fidelity caused a lot of pain. But that's me talking.
Smiley had been an athlete, had played for the Highlanders, the Bulawayo football team when he was younger. He had the fierceness of a good runner. His house was tidy and warm. Set just aside the railroad tracks at the end of the development. You could see the freight trains, not very often, heading for Plumtree and over the border into Botswana. And he grew fruit trees in his small yard, probably guava, I don't recall. His wife, mamazala to me, or mother-in-law, was a generous women, quiet, but not too quiet. I imagined that she would even stand up to Smiley at times, when no one else around, at least she seemed respected in her home and did not cower, like Mr. T's wife. She baked scones in her small oven and sold them to neighbors, making the small money that was so important. She would fix eggs and toast for Precious and me when we visited, and we would sit in her tidy living room, resting our plates on the doilies of upholstered chairs. She served tea, and Smiley would be present, but not commanding. I thought they were a good couple. And she was the same size as Smiley, not too tall or too wide, but like him, only softer and not so wiry.
Their daughter Grace was my favorite child, about eight when I knew her in 1997. She had beautiful eyes and a sweet smile. We liked each other a lot. In fact, we still like each other, because Grace and I are still in touch and she reads all the episodes of this family memoir and sometimes provides information, and often provides encouragement.
Ronnie, the youngest Mataka brother occupied the back bedroom. He was an unhappy man. He worked for the Indians at their store in an upscale neighborhood. They treated him badly and paid him poorly. He could not seem to find a girlfriend. I felt sorry for him.
Gosh. Gosh, this is getting to be long enough. Just picture Precious and I walking slowly back from Smiley's house to the Plumtree market, to buy steak and beers for dinner, and then two more blocks to our place on Shottery Crescent.