If Only

By Tariro Nyarirangwe

“Do you accept the charges that have been made against you?” asked the judge, looking sternly at the three accused young women. Nyasha and Panashe, tears streaming down their cheeks, nodded their heads and pleaded guilty. For a moment, Danielle was lost in a trance, but she snapped out of it when the judge called her name a second time. She looked at the jury and then redirected her attention back to the judge and said, “I had no choice.”

The eldest of six children, Danielle had been saddled with her siblings from a young age. Her parents were civil servants, teachers by profession, who worked in the district of Sahumani, Zimbabwe. To obtain their teaching qualifications, one of them, in accordance with government policy, had to do their internship at a school in a rural district. This made things difficult for the couple, because the family lived in a two-room apartment in a run-down area of the Sakubva township in Mutare, and they had no one to look after the children when they were in Sahumani. Their meager salary—a large portion of which immediately went to paying off their debts, for they had to borrow money almost every day to get by—only allowed them to visit their children twice a month, for two days at a time.

As a result, Danielle became a surrogate parent for her siblings. Since the parents were never around, she gradually took on the responsibility for feeding them and dressing them for school. She found herself having to do odd jobs to make ends meet. She babysat children in the middle-class homes of nearby Greendale, sold vegetables from their home garden, and cleaned houses. Yet she only managed to provide her siblings with one proper meal a day, sometimes two. On top of that, although her parents provided some assistance, she had to hustle to ensure that her tuition fees were paid on time, and that Tatenda, the youngest, was not expelled from school for not paying hers. At times they couldn’t even afford to buy tea, so instead they burned sugar over the fire and added water. They truly were between a rock and a hard place.

The situation became even worse when her mother fell ill with tuberculosis and had to take unpaid leave from work. The burden placed on Danielle became excessive. Now she also had to take care of her mother. She bathed her and purchased the medication Mama could not afford. With all this turmoil, Danielle muddled her way through high school, barely managing to obtain passing grades. At the end of each day, she was exhausted. She struggled to find the time to study, but she managed to get into one of the universities in Harare, the capital. This meant that she had to move away from her beloved mother and siblings. Their fate was in the hands of the community, and she prayed that the children would be raised well. Her dream was to be a social worker. If she became a social worker, she would be able to take better care of her family.

With her mother sick and no longer able to contribute to the family’s welfare, she continued to chip in to help her father. Without her aid, her siblings couldn’t afford to go to school. Balancing work and school became very difficult. She opted not to live on campus, as she knew her father was unable to pay the high accommodation fees. With the help of a newfound friend, she managed to secure accommodation nearby, in the Avenues neighborhood, where the monthly rent was relatively cheap. It was a neighborhood famous for its ladies of the night.

Danielle struggled through the first weeks of the semester. She scrambled to put food on the table and purchase school supplies and still have enough money left over at the end of the month to pay rent. She was overwhelmed, and the ladies of the night seemed to be doing better financially. The pressure compelled her to join their ranks. The experience was unpleasant, but she had no choice.

But before long, the five dollars she earned per night no longer covered her living expenses. She was failing to register for her courses, because she couldn’t pay her tuition fees on time. What else could she do now? She had already sold her womanhood. What more could she give? And so she joined up with two other women and they began to target rich older men. What did she care? Her soul was already broken. After sleeping with the men, they would drug them and then steal their money and valuables. They did this for some time with success. Danielle could once again pay her rent and tuition fees, and she even managed to pay for Tatenda’s first term in first form. At last, a light at the end of the tunnel!

The women’s confidence grew along with their successes, and they targeted more and more clients. They even had a reliable supplier for the drugs they used. One day, after having successfully drugged their client, the three women drove off with the stolen money and jewels. But they had vandalized the kitchen. The following morning, a report was made to the police. The man’s house had CCTV cameras, which made the work easy for the detectives.

A few days later, Danielle and her friends were in handcuffs before the judge, and the evidence against them was indisputable. Danielle stood there, looking unkempt after three days of no sleep and continual police harassment. How had she become entangled in this? All of the struggles she had gone through to improve her family’s lives, only for her to end up behind bars. Circumstances had led her to this. With a lump in her throat, staring at the judge, she said, “If only I had a choice.”

16 March, 2023