By Fred Owens
A reminder, we are in Africa, in the year 1997, in the country of Zimbabwe, far away from the current troubles.
When we left the story last week, we had completed our whitewater rafting adventure down the Zambezi River, a series of boiling rapids in the deep canyon below Victoria Falls. Here the river forms the boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Zed Countries I call them. One country is poor and the other is very poor. The young Zambian men who help carry the raft to the launch site are not wearing shoes. That's Zambia, they don't even have shoes. And their currency is called the kwacha and their capital is called Lusaka. No tourists go to Zambia. They don't have toilet paper.
But that is just an observation. After we finished floating down through this incredibly steep canyon we pulled up to a sandy beach where the water was calm. We stepped out of the raft and wanted to kneel and kiss the ground for having made it safely through this devil's grist mill of white water.
I saw Precious and Eva standing together talking. They looked alike. No, they did look alike because they were both wearing green shorts. "I don't know why she bought the same color as mine," Eva said with some exasperation. "Now we look like team mates." "Maybe it's just that Precious wants you to like her. She flatters you by buying the same outfit." I was stumbling for words. This was female territory. But they did look alike. Eva, 18, with a dewy pink complexion, and light brown hair playfully tossed, with the freshness of an American teenager. Precious, mid thirties, rounder fuller, stronger, of black coffee skin and firm black hair. Precious of the doe eyes, deeper than the ocean. Eva with the sunshine in her smile. But both optimistic. Precious had overcome, had ignored, the tragedy of African existence. She had a trust in human nature that human nature did not deserve. Eva had that same trust but only because she was young.
Yes , they looked alike. I kept that image because it was true. Sure, I had to stretch this a little to make it fit, but I could do that, even though they didn't always get along. Why should they? Eva was raised to be outspoken. I might have had words with her, but there was never that sullen adolescent silence, that disconnect, close the bedroom door and don't talk to me. No, that never happened when she was growing up. Instead she was in my face, telling me with exquisite intelligence how wrong I was. And me coming back at her, saying you don't do what I say because I'm right, you do what I say because I'm your father, and being right is just a part of it.
But aside, to myself, I would think that I never expected obedience, and considered disobedience to be a small error. After all, I was not often obedient myself and did not respect it too much as a virtue. But she would talk to me, and always had. So, she was talking that day with Precious after this rafting trip which was a bit of bonding for the both of them.
Which one of them had the advantage? Eva with an American passport and a ticket to ride. That was the great privilege of American and European visitors to Zimbabwe --- they could leave.
Not Precious, she had no way out. Her life was African from birth to the end. But that was her strength, she was on the ground as firm as the old stones of this old continent. Her people had always been there. Had never been any place else. That gave her a lot of strength.
Without ever admitting that she saw me as a way out -- a ticket holder. I was touchy about that. I was glad to buy her things, modern appliances and clothes and good restaurants. But I was not going to dangle the Green Card Vision in front of her longing eyes. We were both too proud for that. If her dream was to go to America, she never hinted at it for me. Unless she was playing the long game.
Eva didn't know what she wanted. This three-week trip to Zimbabwe was her first venture overseas, and it was quite mind opening.
After the rafting expedition, we drove back to Bulawayo and when we got home to Shottery Crescent -- and it was home -- I asked Eva what Precious and she were talking about.
"Hair," she said.
"Hair, you were talking about hair?"
"Her hair is different than mine."
"I'll say...black hair is a mystery to me.," I said, beginning to discourse on the topic. "We always talk about skin color because it is the most obvious difference between black and white people. And we strive to overlook skin color and not pass judgment on that basis. So we are taught, but black people have the richest skin tone, from capuccino to espresso, from mahogany to copper, from darkest velvet to almost tawny white. It is a rich variety of hues. And so much smoother and hairless. White people have skin like sandpaper in comparison, and gross amounts of hair almost everywhere. But that doesn't matter..... What really matters is hair."
"I know that, Dad," she said. "We're going to do our hair together tomorrow."
"Yes, Dad. Do our hair. You know, wash, comb, brush, weave, braid, trim. She has some beaded extensions she wants to try. This will take us almost all day."
"Well, be my guest, I can go to the bookstore downtown. They have a good cup of coffee."
When I left the two of them, they were sitting under the guava tree in the back yard. One sitting in front of the other, braiding and talking. When I came back from the bookstore they were still at it. I didn't ask.
Eva went on her own venture a few days later, trekking to the ruins and to the mountains. I can't believe I let her travel alone in that country, but she did all right, except she got off the trail in Chimanimani and had to camp out overnight unawares of where she was supposed to be. But she came back a week later, refreshed and ready to fly back to America, ready to start her second year at Oberlin College.
We took her to the airport and off she went, back to the world. She broke my heart. She did that every time I saw her.
And what was I going to do? Growing up she used to be in my life every day and all day and now she was gone. I looked at Precious and I said, "Baby, what do we do now?" She said, "We go back to Shottery Crescent. I fix you some dinner, we drink some beer and watch TV. I like to watch that man."
"That man on the show, you know, Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Is it like that in America?"
Next Episode. Precious is her name. That is what I call her. On her passport, on her birth certificate, on her school records, that is her name. But that is not what her family calls her. They call her Zodwa. Next time I will tell you about that.