“Where is your wife? Do you have a wife? Where are your children? Do you have children? Will you have children? Do you cook? Clean? Tidy up? Where is your dog? Who takes care of you?”
Who takes care of you?
[“What would you like for lunch? Rice and chicken and vegetables? Stew? Soup?”]
In America, we make a fetish of self-care; it’s the neoliberal way: you’re responsible for you. You do you. I know plenty of bachelors and bachelorettes, and frankly, most of them have better life-skills than I do. I came of living-alone age living in giant cities, where cheap restaurants and prepared-food markets supplied me with all of my non-cereal needs. I still live like a graduate student. I’m thrifty, close-fisted, but curiously not when it comes to the extra expense of eating prepared foods, as opposed to cooking for myself. Boxed pastas are my friend, and I can knock down a box of child-delighting Kraft mac and cheese (I enjoy the Disney-shaped ones) in a single intense, mouth-gumming sitting. I can make a sandwich, and a mean omelette. I figured out shaksouka, and I enjoy following recipes for pies. I’m good at following directions, generally. Cooking meat scares me, and generally speaking so do leftovers (how long are they good? Are they stored healthfully? Will I die of botulism?).
[“Prof James? We should buy a cooking paddle for the sadza. And perhaps boxes to store food so that you will have food on Sunday, too.”]
Besides, I’m always tired. I work hard at work, and I get home to my dog, and play, and I answer all the emails I didn’t get around to, and finish up the writing I couldn’t finish at work, and read the small circle of websites I read, and watch the few episodes of the few TV shows I make do with online.
Besides, there are manifold financial pressures of bachelor life in America – the taxes, the credit card debt, car loan, car insurance, gas, health insurance, electricity, water, sewage, internet, cell phone, dog food. Cigarettes. Coffee. By the time all these have claimed their share, there’s little left. Produce and meat seem expensive, although I know they’re good for me.
“The middle-class everywhere complain about poverty; for some reason or other, no matter how much money they have, it is never as much as they are due. This is not an original observation, but on this trip it was being given startling new life.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
[“Please, Prof James? I need to buy onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage. May I go to the market to get these things?”]
Besides, I’m relatively healthy. I got over junior-varsity cancer (testicular; check yourself before you wreck yourself). There is diabetes and heart issues on both sides, but I inherited my mother’s impossibly low blood pressure, and in spite of the excess weight I carry, seem to be in no imminent danger of the sugars. I smoke, and that’s bad, I know, and I’ll quit, like everyone says they will. I have quit a couple of times, but it never seems to stick.
And besides, cigarettes suppress unwanted hunger.
“The couple I was visiting were both getting on, like me. They were in their sixties. They had retired from civil service jobs. Both were full of health, energy, and complaints. Their house was a large bungalow, many-roomed, with verandahs all around it, and it sat in two acres of land, full of fruit trees and vegetables and flowers.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
For the first month I was here, I stayed at the university guesthouse in the suburbs of this big city. It was me – and whoever else was visiting the school that needed a place to stay. A kind and genial radiology professor from the UK; a stolid and searching forestry professor from the Eastern Highlands; a snuffling, snoring, darting, bird-like Singaporean professor; a busy-busy big man from Harare who played tuneless white gospel music and prosperity gospel preachers from Texan megachurches.
And sometimes it was just me.
“This couple employed two servants, men… The servants cleaned the house, grew the vegetables, tended the fruit trees, laid the table, served the food. When we had finished they cleared the table, served the food. When we had finished they cleared the table, made coffee and washed up.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
But it was never just me. There was “Margaret,” the incredibly witty and loosely gregarious and teasing housekeeper. “DOKH-tah Zhjames,” she’d crow, loudly or softly, but musically and smilingly. She fell in love with the idea of my dog, Phineas. “Phineasssss. Such a nice name for a dog!” She would ask about him, sometimes I think just to see me get a little distant and misty. She taught me about mopane worms: to remove the flaky chitonous shell, to rehyhdrate them, salt and fry them, eat them with sadza. Although I still haven’t eaten sadza, because she was certain that I would want traditional foods.
[Panting, softly, “Prof, here is your change.”]
She worked all day, in fits and starts, sweeping mopping scrubbing; then draping herself languidly over corners of couches in corners of rooms just out of sight. One day, I caught a glimpse of her, feet up in the busy-busy big man’s desk chair, reading his discarded newspaper avidly. I caught her eyes and burst out laughing, and she shuffle-jogged into my room, and threw herself on my bed, guffawing at being caught out.
The washing line was always hung with clothes flapping in the breeze. She would leave and come back with armfuls of cauliflower. She painstakingly labored over ironing, and cleaned up the perpetual stains on the part of the tablecloth where only I sat. Evening meals were cooked in four, sometimes five, shifts. Mine first. Then hers; then the guardener’s; then the guard’s. Sometimes the guardener’s kids came in and cooked a later snack.
“The back yard, a space of bare dust enclosed by parallel hibiscus hedges, was a triumph of individualism over communal living. Eight separate woodpiles, eight clothes-lines, eight short paths edged with brick leading to eight lavatories that were built side by side like segments of chocolate, behind an enclosing tin screen: the locks (and therefore the keys) were identical, for the sake of cheapness, a system which guaranteed strife among the inhabitants. On either side of the lavatories were two rooms, built as a unit. In these four rooms lived eight native servants. At least, officially there were eight, in practice far more.” (Doris Lessing, “A Home for the Highland Cattle”)
[I just shuffled into the kitchen, and clumsily pouring water from the pitcher in the fridge, globules leapt out and splattered around my bare feet. “It’s okay!”]
At 7am, the university bus dropped off Mrs. Moyo. She had a kind, impassive face that cracked wide open into a smile when she was tickled by something, which was much more often than her resting face suggests. She also washed, ironed, mopped. She shuffled the paperwork, the receipts. She made the phone calls on the crackling line full of deafening static, and knew everyone in every office. She liaised with the transport drivers. She parceled out the monies for the shopping.
And then there was the guard-ener, an old man with a perpetually goofy smile. “Hohhhh-raity,” he said to just about anything, a common local version of a cheerful “Alrighty.” He teased me gently with his demeanor, looking down and away with his nearly-blind eyes when talking to me, but peeking at me intently with the corners of his eyes until I pulled his gaze upwards and he smiled. He has a family in Malawi, and children that stayed with him in the house behind the house, where “Margaret” also lived with her husband Clive.
The trash was emptied, and my scattered things realigned on an ageing, fading plastic serving tray. My clothing – my shirts, my pants, my tshirts, my underwear – was ironed and hung in the closet. Ironed underwear is a hitherto unknown pleasure, the stiff starchiness staving off swampass and holding up bravely against the sweat that trickles down my back. The bed was made every morning with tight hospital corners I had to wrench to squeeze under, just the way I liked it as a kid, cocooned tightly, pinned in.
“Everything in the house had the sparkling cherished look which is not often seen in Britain, where women work, or do not have the time for this level of housework. It is the look that goes with servants.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
When I was leaving for college, my mother taught me how to do laundry. Separate the colors and the whites. Treat bright colors as if they’ll always bleed pink into your undershirts. Stain remover in advance; detergent poured in first, then clothes, then a tiny wristed dollop of detergent on top. Clean the lint trap, always. Shake out the dense cold wet blobs of clothes, turn rightside out, throw in the dryer one piece at a time. Choose the correct setting, but better yet, never buy any delicates if you can help it. Never choose too high a setting unless you want everything to shrink. Let go, but at the buzzer, immediately pull the clothing that you didn’t want wrinkled – button-downs, pants. Shake them out vigorously and immediately fold. Stack into laundry basket, and return to closet.
She offered to teach me how to cook, but I shrugged it off; meal plan. She sent me to college with cups of Easy Mac and Hi-C orange juice boxes, which I would drink two at a time, granola bars. She didn’t come with to drop me off; instead, my father loaded the UHaul and we took the familiar route – I-20 to I-45, change to I-10 in the awkward Alexandria exchange before pulling across the interminable causeway to New Orleans. This past summer, my mother admitted, “I didn’t go to drop you off at college because I needed you to feel self-sufficient. I didn’t want you to think that I would always be there to pick up after you.”
[The two women in the kitchen laugh to each other in Ndebele. Pots and dishes clang into the sink and water runs and I hear the squick of the scouring pads.]
This past summer I was 36, and spun out into a regularly scheduled depressive cycle (three times a year, unlunar, signalled in advance by a growing sense of detached dread, a dulling of the colors of the world and a jangling of nerves). This time, exacerbated by the tumult of packing up my house to move to Zimbabwe, leaving my dog behind with my adoring colleagues, leaving dear friends. Bethany and Josh, and their little babby Noah, hosted me at least once a week since we became fast friends when I had just moved to Chattanooga. She cooked me pasta bake, and meatballs, and burritos, and breakfast burritos on the Saturday mornings I’d pop over to their house. And they threw me the most wonderful party when I left, quiche-themed, because I like quiche, and they love me. “I don’t mean this the wrong way,” Bethany began with a slightly raised eyebrow. “But when you’re in Zimbabwe, who’s going to take care of you?”
She would send me home with leftovers from dinner, to Josh’s protestations that he needed a lunch. I ate them 70% of the time, and the other 30% was haunted by their slowly mold-furring glistening. She knew that most days I heat up a Lean Cuisine, or grab fast food. “I mean, we have you over every week. Don’t get me wrong!” she immediately protested, raising a hand to God, “We love you! I’m just worried about you, that’s all.”
[Mr F wandered into the room, looking at the postcards I tacked up on the walls. He moved behind me, “You type quick-quick-quick! So fast!” I mumbled something in bemused agreement. He stayed behind me, I suppose reading what I’ve typed, squinting at the laptop screen.]
At the guesthouse, I would often perambulate the yard, peering into deep holes for hints of snakes, plucking peppery, hexagonal nasturtium leaves and chewing them, gazing up at the azure-breasted finches and iridescent doves and the scimitar-beaked bee-eaters and punk-crested woodpeckers. But I kept my transits limited to the left, the front, the right. Not the back.
There is a house behind the house. It was behind the driveway and carport. And behind a wall behind the driveway and carport. The kitchen had a half-door, the top half always open letting in scented breezes from the robust lemon tree in the backyard. I wasn’t meant to be in the kitchen, either, but I took to pouring myself water from the fridge, tucking away yogurt cups next to the wilting cauliflower or rooting out a teaspoon to stir up a cup of Nescafe.
“When Marina, a woman who took her responsibilities seriously…looked inside the room which her servant shared with the servant from next door, she exclaimed helplessly: ‘Dear me, how awful!’ The room was very small. The brick walls were unplastered, the tin of the roof bare, focussing the sun’s intensity inwards all day, so that even while she stood on the threshold, she began to feel a little faint, because of the enclosed heat. The floor was cement, and the blankets that served as beds lay directly on it. No cupboards or shelves: these were substituted by a string stretching from corner to corner. Two small, high windows, whose glass was cracked and pasted with paper. On the walls were pictures of the English royal family, torn out of illustrated magazines…
At home, I live alone with my dog. So never alone, but his purpose is emotional, not functional. I’ve lived with roommates throughout university, and all of my roommates have been better people than myself, which is a blessing for me, and an ultraminor curse for them, as my disorder crept around corners into communal spaces, and my low-key slovenliness meant I too infrequently scrubbed the tub or toilet.
My home in America is too big for me, generally, but it’s on the small end of American houses. That I have a house for just me is a luxury, I know, but I wander and mutter and sprawl and sing and talk to myself, I pump music while I write, and bellow show tunes. And my house is cheaper than most apartment complexes, anyway, and there never seems to be enough money.
There’s no such thing as being alone, generally, in Africa. (At the Open Book Festival, the Congolese novelist Fiston Muzila commented, “In Africa, there is no personal space. You are always on top of people, rubbing up against them, hearing them, smelling them. Sometimes when there is an electricity outage late at night in Lubumbashi, my mother says, ‘I am worried. Something is wrong. It is too quiet.’” Petina Gappah agreed, “The thing that makes an African city an African city is that there is no privacy.”)
I’ve certainly never had a housekeeper or cleaner, other than my mother. She was a housewife, and so the business of her day was not unlike servants’, although she didn’t get the little pay afforded domestic help. She says she didn’t mind, but I know I would have minded, staying at home cleaning up after children who were run around town every day for extracurriculars. Taxi drivers, janitors, housecleaners can form unions. Housewives? Even if she said it was fine, it doesn’t feel fine to me in retrospect.
[“We have finished the meal. Would you like to come serve yourself?” The rice. The chicken stewed in tomatoes, onions, pepper, oil. Blanched marrows, carrots, cauliflower. The Slaw of Competence, with hotel-precise shredded cabbage and tiny cubes of carrot and a light touch with the mayo, thinly sliced cucumbers scaling the top.]
“This was the hour of heat, when all activity faded into somnolence. The servants were away at the back, eating their midday meal. In the eight flats, separated by the flimsy walls which allowed every sound to be heard, the women reclined, sleeping, or lazily gossiping… Marina yawned. What a lazy life this was [she had]!” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
I was in the transient guesthouse for a month. It was perfectly lovely; the birdlife was tremendous, the stars on a clear, moonless night unsullied by the warm ochre glow of the city center.
But I was relieved to move to the apartment the university had been fitfully preparing for me in their downtown classroom building. It’s a marvellous old building, whose lobby whooshes cold air into the gritty street, and bathes the wifi-pirates, stockstill and alit with their devices. There is a terrifying elevator in the lobby, and the locals still call it PriceWaterHouse, with what I am sure is a capital ‘H.’ All of the streets in Bulawayo are lined with blue blooming jacarandas, but the ones on my street are spectacular, fed on the composting cast-off cabbage leaves from the produce market. “onedollaronedollaronedollar.” “Hey, ROONEY.”
(Everywhere in the non-European world that I travel, as a white man, I am likened to the most adjacent pale football player. I’m chagrined to have grown into a Rooney, when I was for one shining moment a Schweinsteiger, but everyone ages.)
[“We will go to the other side at half-past three?” she asked hopefully. “To get the sadza paddle and the lunch boxes?” I nodded eagerly, “Yes!” “You will be finished then--?” she gestured to my laptop, open on this screen, my books splayed around me, a half-finished glass of Mazoe and a pack of cigarettes next to me. “Ye-esss,” I said self-consciously, and then self-importantly, “I mean, no, the work never ends, does it?” I asked with a sick-making chuckle as I heard myself.]
The morning I leave, I’m sad. The flurry of the activity of the morning, throwing things into suitcases and boxes, shovelling wet toiletries into shopping bags, leaves me feeling conflicted; independence and a reclaimed bachelorhood in the center of the big city! But no one puttering around the house and teasing and flouncing. This morning, The Big Man is taking his time packing up his things, playing that weak, warbling, white gospel music in the room next door. “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo have committed to going with me to the new apartment – which they haven’t yet seen, but have heard of in great detail from the university grapevine. “It has TWO bedrooms!” Margaret crowed in the driveway, before rolling her eyes and jerking her thumb in the direction of the malingering Big Man, who is dragging his feet on checking out.
“It is niiiiiiice,” she said, drawling it out. “But we will MISS YOU.” She mimes kicking the ground and hanging her head. “It will be so looooooonely,” she crooned.
“I’ll have to have you and Mrs Moyo over for dinner. I will cook!” I said boastfully, thinking of the three dishes I could probably toss together, none of which have meats, and no meal has no meat here.
The Big Man finally leaves, and “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo climb gleefully into the transport truck, while the female driver, a relative, tucks a unspotted bromeliad under the tarp. All the way there, the driver tries to teach me Shona, while “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo have the chattering and irrepressibly schoolgirl air of an outing. An Outing!
When we get there, “Margaret” is impatient to find the janitor with the keys. We were a half hour late, so I’m reminding myself to be patient, even as she is chomping at the bit to get in. He lets us in, and the apartment unfolds. We open the first door to a sitting room with a chaise couch and large armchair. “Margaret” throws herself onto the navy blue sateen chaise, leaning on an elbow, giving cover girl realness. She mugs, and then her face falls, and she says softly while the janitor and Mrs Moyo proceed to investigate the bathroom, “But Dokh-tah…who is going to take care of you?”
“‘But I am afraid poor Anne has to do some of the cooking these days.’ ‘Yes, I am afraid it is a bit of a burden.’ Meanwhile my friends of thirty years ago complained. The Monologue, of course [about being unappreciated]. But they were also complaining about their poverty, their deprivation, and in the nagging peevish voices of spoiled children.
There was a Christmas day air – or, I shuddered to realize, a Boxing Day air-- while we unpacked my books and tucked them onto the shelves. The two women marvelled as I pulled out clothes they’d never seen from the bag I’d never unpacked. They fingered the clothes, admired. Some of the clothes still had tags on them; my usual wardrobe, I explained to them, was much shoddier, and I had to buy new clothes to come here.
Mrs Moyo admired the prices, too, knowing she’d pay the same for lower quality synthetic goods in the Indian shops, the Chinese shops. “Ehhhh, you are what, an Ex-El? Ex-Ex-El? My husband, he is an Ex-Ex-El,” Mrs Moyo said, with perquisites in mind. “Margaret” chimed in, “You are going to have to sell us these things before you leave, Dokhtah.”
Mrs Moyo looked thoughtful and said quietly to herself, “No, he will give them to us,” as she hung up an overdyed peach Target oxford. We worked for a bit in silence, me pulling things out, and shaking them out. I moved small things into assorted drawers, shuffled out to the living room, giving them a chance to whisper and marvel in quiet Ndebele. I waited a few extra beats to let them have it out before returning. I plopped down onto the vanity’s stool, rubbing my face performatively to signal something – I don’t know what, I was tired, too tired to help, not actually supervising?. It was short work, and they pushed the layers of dust out of the apartment, and arranged a coffee table and chairs in the kitchen. A coffee table and chairs in the kitchen? There was a square dining table in the living room with springed chairs.
[“How was the meal? Was it good?” he asked with a comically proprietorial air, rubbing his hands. “Yes, yes, very good,” I said patting my belly. “Good good good” he laughed, gasping. “You are lucky to live on the first floor, and have these ladies.”]
I took “Margaret” and Mrs Moyo to lunch at the art gallery. We perched at a bar table in the shade, and made small talk, pushed things around on the table. Mrs Moyo was impeccably sweet with the waitress, who in turn recognized a master of her trade and responded with absolute respect. I half-turned to “Margaret” but couldn’t quite make eye contact. I peered past her into the air above her right shoulder. I swallowed a lump.
“Okay, Margaret. I feel really, really bad. I realized a week ago that you have a couple of names.”
Mrs Moyo chimed, “Eh-LIZ-eh-beth,” and nodded firmly.
“Yes, Elizabeth,” I agreed.
Mrs Moyo said, “And Beh-lo.” She said it like “Beryl,” but if you rolled the ‘r’.
“Behlo,” I agreed, and Elizabeth nodded.
“But not one of your names is actually ‘Margaret,’ is it?” I finally asked.
She shook her head neutrally.
“But I’ve been calling you ‘Margaret.’”
She shrugged, “But it is a niiiiiiice name.”
I made equivocal hands; “Yeah, it is. But I should call you by one of your actual names.”
“Elizabeth,” she said, nodding.
“They sat blinking, unable to believe I could be so treacherous. ‘In Britain you’d have to be rich to live like this. Even in America, to have two servants, you’d be rich. Your way of life is an unreachable dream to ninety-nine point nine per cent of the world’s people.” (Doris Lessing, African Laughter)
Today, I got two servants for my new apartment. “Servants” is the wrong word, a violent word, but I don’t understand how this happened, nor do I understand the etiquette for this. I grew up American middle-class – the world-historical 99% for what it’s worth – and I had a mother who cleaned our house, and cooked, and didn’t get paid.
The building manager (a better title than “Janitor,” which is what adorns his door) supervises a cleaning staff of two people per floor, women mostly, but men too. This echoes the arrangement at the university, where every articulation of the Great Conjoined Building has a different cleaner for each floor. The young woman wearing schoolgirl greens with the close-cropped hair and East African bone structure; the youngish man with scholastic looking glasses and suspenders who does hasty work; the old woman with a jutting front tooth, and charmingly multicoloured wig who sells biscuits in the courtyard at lunch for fifty cents.
The supervisor explains that the two women in front of me, whose names I couldn’t pick up, are the cleaners for the floor, and so they will clean my apartment every day. This wasn’t a question. I froze, unsure of what to do; I beckoned them in and proceeded to walk them through the apartment, explaining what was obvious. “This is the living room. I just put up those postcards… I hope the double-sided tape doesn’t give us trouble when I move out” I rushed, before giggling awkwardly and shrugging. Nqo--- (it pains me but I lose every Ndebele word after a click; I hear the click; I hear the click as a click, the tongue popping against the palate before fluently sliding into another syllable. This does not happen for me; my tongue gets stuck to the roof of mouth as with peanut butter. I go through this every time I hear a click.) Nqo--- gestures at my laptop and nods approvingly, “You are working hard, Doctor,” she said with none of the theatrical jokiness as “Margaret” did, but with no less warmth. “But you do not watch television?” She looked quizzically at the silent screen.
Nqo--- and Tvsi--- (it pains me but I lose Ndebele words after the sharply aspirated “tShh(eh)”. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton gives us a gentle lie when she pronounces Morgan Tsvangirai’s name as “Svhvv-ANG-ee-raI.” I practiced saying that for weeks before I came here, only to be confounded, then delighted, by the “tShh(eh).” tShee(eh)ng-ee-wry!) Nqo--- and Tvsi---- left to investigate the other rooms, and I heard the surgical PLOP of rubber gloves, and then running water. Mr. F stood there rubbing his hands together. “Would you like for them to cook? They will cook.”
Tvsi--- offers from the kitchen, “She is a GOOD cook!”
Nqo--- chimes in happily, “I will cook you lunch. You take us to the market, and we will get food.” I laughed “heh heh, yeah, I just have a couple odds and ends,” having bought most of the foods that would keep me minimally – yogurt, cereal, milk, juice, fruit; butter, bread. I wrung my hands; thinking in my terribly middle-class way that surely this must cost something? And that if it did, I wouldn’t mind? “heh. heh. Uh, sure? Uh—are we going now?” Nqo--- chuckled, “We are cleaning now. Then we will come back at twelve.”
“What would you like for lunch? Rice and chicken and vegetables? Stew? Soup?”
Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.