This House is for Cyclones

By Stephen Pech Gai

Maria woke to a hectic day with more than the usual routines; the duty of yesterday’s house laundry was interrupted by Mapokezi—the cash ration distribution collection—other house chores, and the monthly shopping. It was Monday and the sky had just delivered a lively lukewarm sun. The wind seemed to have been also attending some apprentices and would return to blow some cold breeze after the sun rested its traverse of warming the camp.

The nearby early childhood education school, a stone’s throw from Maria’s home, was filled with noise. As children go to school, Maria’s house will be filled with the empty silence of the vacuum. Maria gazed at the school and observed the pool of toddlers in green uniforms trooping into the school’s compound with their backs laden with tiny bags, some tightly packed and others drooping in partial emptiness. The younger kids held hands with their parents, guardians, and older siblings, while the older ones staggered on their own.

Maria bent to come inside, pulled the curtains open, and entered the room where the children slept. “Maji, John, wake up” she shouted, lightly slapping Maji, sleeping in uniform, on her shoulder, and tapping John on the hip.

The children jumped to their feet and rubbed their eyes, walking toward the kitchen. “Why are you sleeping like you are dead,” she asked Maji, the girl, about five years old. Maria stared at her little boy, John, whom the family called the master of evasion, but said nothing. John was four and prone to stammering. After his long attempts to find his tongue failed, he usually ended in laughter; but this time, he filled his mouth with water before his mom’s interrogation began.

Maji spoke up. “Mom, our Madam made me and my classmates sing yesterday.”

“What about you, John? “Maria asked.

Maji answered, “John was plucked out of the line by our Madam because he was dragging behind the songs. He went to playing hide-and-seek with some naughty children behind the tent blocks.” John was irritated by these accusations and he spat out the foamy Colgate toothpaste onto Maji’s green uniform. A whitish-yellow strain of froth formed.

Maji, who was soft like her name, broke into crying, cursing, and name-calling, while John impetuously dashed into the bedroom, hurriedly dressed, grabbed his little bag, keenly examined what was inside, smiled at some fried potatoes lathered in margarine, and bravely walked away. He took the road that passed behind the house; he was afraid that Maria would throw stones after him from their house. Their home stood on a bare patch in a neighborhood that was fenced in by the African milk tree, a perennial plant commonly used in the camp for fencing.

The community liked establishing their compounds by planting the milk tree because they don’t wither, even in summer, and snakes can’t hide or easily pass through it, maybe because of its smell. African milk tree has some problems as well; it grows fast and needs to be maintained by trimming. If a branch is broken, it oozes its namesake “milk,” which is pungent to the eye. Children who take to it as a refuge while they are playing end up crying if they tamper with it.

Maria reached out to soothe Maji. “Sorry my daughter, sorry! Sorry!”

“Mom, how can I go to school like this? This isn’t just water but a Colgate foam and this stain is turning white,” Maji replied while crying.

“Take off your top, my daughter. Let me rinse it out. It will dry as you go to school,” Maria calmed Maji. “This is Tongogara heat, no matter where the sun is during the day, it dries all fabrics.” Maji did as Maria asked, and then she took the cleaned top and put it back on. “Go to school, Maji, ‘the future is young and promising,’ as one of our great people said.” She bid goodbye to the child as Maji flounced to school with a little bag hung from her back.

Maria searched the house for her old shopping bucket. She looked in the kitchen and saw it tilted over to one side. Perhaps, some rats might have encroached into it last night but if not maybe a lizard. She knew that the mere weight of small dried fish leftover from yesterday’s dinner couldn’t make the bucket slide off its hook. Maria wrapped her kitenge around her waist and put on a bright top. The kitenge, a length of colorful wax-printed cotton, is what women in the camp habitually wore for morning shopping.

Leaving the house she passed by the school and noticed the many circles of children of different ages gathering for the school’s weekly assembly that began with the national anthem. The school was made of many blocks inside a fine rectangular coated-wire fence, and its walls were painted with portraits and names of tame and wild animals, vegetables, and many other images that made no sense to her at this distance.

As she passed the camp’s main distribution point, a vivid dream she had the previous night surfaced in her mind. It was a terrible dream that scared her by making its horrific events seem inevitable. In the dream, she was engulfed in a staggering storm and their house’s rusted iron roof split on one side. She and the children were overwhelmed, wailing in this disaster that no one had expected, not even her brave husband, Papa Maji.

Papa Maji had traveled to the capital city, Harare, to search for work. For work he needed connections, but there are no connections if you don’t have a few dollars to ease the broker’s mind and tongue. Papa Maji gave two crisp colorful ten-dollar notes to his friend in Harare who told him to come there in a week.

Upon his arrival, the friend told him that the shop owner, an Ethiopian man, had found out that Papa Maji spoke very little English. Papa Maji argued that he speaks pretty Shona, which is understood by most of the city dwellers, and he could make a good shopkeeper to Shona-speaking customers. But the Ethiopian was unconvinced, and, despite those merits, the job was offered to another person on the very same morning that Papa Maji arrived in Harare.

Maria was worried to the point of hopelessness. “My dream is coming soon, as winter leads to the cyclone season, this awful thing will happen,” she said to herself. She imagined the cost of fixing the house. It was an exorbitant price. The cost would reach about four hundred dollars because the ten-year-old roof and the baked bricks were no longer of any use. The house needed windows and an entrance door, timbers and wires, cement, a builder, and anything else alongside these basic demands was an unimaginable luxury. Though papa Maji could raise such an amount in four months of work as a shopkeeper, after paying his town rent and transport and food, he was unfortunately caught loitering and had to look for anything he could to pay for his transport back home.

“Ma’am, Karibu! Jumbo! You look worried, what is wrong?”  Maria was welcomed and greeted in Swahili by one of the open-air market merchants. Swahili, Shona, and French were all languages for the market. At forty, the lively vendor looked even younger than twenty-five-year-old Maria.

“Thank you, ma’am, no problem,” Maria answered. “I was just making up my mind about what to buy. There are so many vegetables here.” The vendor wore a long, light, tuck-in kitenge. She sold her vegetables from a wooden table under a rectangular flat roof with grass on top to cool the extreme heat.

“No worries, you are here for a long happiness. I have got all kinds of vegetables you need. You can see from their leaves how fresh they are. I don’t buy or sell two-night vegetables like other women and those little girls. I own a vegetable garden and I sell what I harvest each day.” The woman spoke the truth and Maria was convinced.

Maria pushed her hand into her shopping bucket but found no money. She brought the basket closer to take a look but saw nothing. Goosebumps struck her, but she quickly remembered that she had left her purse at home. “Ma’am, are you okay?” The vendor asked.

“I’m fine ma’am, but I think I forgot my money at home,” Maria replied.

“You think you forgot the money? I hope it is not much. Are you sure it wasn’t pinched by those layabout boys who’ve been starving in this market?” Maria shook her head, no, and turned to go back home. “Wait ma’am, take the vegetables and you can send your child back, or bring me the money later.” The smart shopkeeper didn’t want to lose her customer, with or without money.

“It was sixty,” Maria explained. “Let me go Ma’am, I will come back,” and she hurried off. She was a strange sight in the market—a woman who had brought an empty basket and returned home with nothing. Some thought the hot summer sun was making unexpected impulses in the minds of even the most normal people.
Maria knew how easily a thief could enter her house. All the wooden windows and doors were termite-infested. But, she assured herself, her house was not attractive to thieves—only to cyclones—and then she slowed down her strides.

The school bell rang at noon and almost all the kids swiftly flooded the compound before racing home. It had been a jumpy day of singing, unraveling animals’ names by their sounds, looking at images, reading, and arithmetic.

Teachers also needed rest after a tedious day of teaching and looking after a school of juveniles. The teachers of little kids worked shorter days than those in the upper grades, who finished at 4:30 PM. The shorter hours were equally tiresome on these days, marked with head-cracking noise, accompanied by dizziness and vocal fatigue.

John felt lonely all day. And this was his longest day. Sometimes Maji would visit him in his class, but this day was a disappointment. John trolled the compound looking for his sister. He checked all the classrooms, beginning with his sister’s, and finally found Maji doing her classwork in the staff room. “Maji”, he smiled broadly as he ran to his sister.

“Oh my brother,” Maji stood up in welcome and opened her arms for a hug. Brother and sister tucked into hugging, while John sobbed an apology.

“I’m sorry sister, I will never spit on you again, I will never make you cry sister, please forgive me. I’m so sorry.” John’s confession rolled smoothly out as if his clumsy tongue has been perfectly fixed by the day. Both siblings cried and swiped tears from each other’s eyes with the palms of their hands.

The teachers in the staff room smiled at these two whose hearts were lit by the care and the love they felt for each other. Maji handed off her assignment to the teacher. After the teacher scored the test—with all the perfect ticks in red—Maji took her brother’s hand to exit and go home.

On their way home, John narrated what had happened during the day. “I was slapped by Bisumungu, Margaret’s brother. When I cried for help from the teacher, he slapped me and he told me to be quiet.” Maji shook her head. “I knew Bisumungu would stop if I said I will call Maji, but I couldn’t—because I made you cry in the morning sister.”

“Sorry brother. That will not happen again. Bisumungu will never beat you. He’s my age, so he picks on little children like you. I’ll show him that you are my brother tomorrow.”

After they pledged allegiance the duo walked happily to their home under the blazing sun. Their love and care were a rock-solid knot, and their hands intimately joined in each other’s palms walking up to their doorstep.

11 November, 2022