Phone Bill


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I have asked Leonard how much the school fees are for a 19-year-old and he says 60,000 Zim$ (€30). But with inflation estimated at 1200 percent, this is an impossible sum for most.

The home we enter has electricity. A small black and white TV stands in the corner. Five children sit on the floor, eating boiled maize with their hands. I sit on a chair with broken upholstery. The children are aged 14, 10, 8, 5, and 3. The eldest’s name is Romeo.

We start talking to the gogo. She says paying the children’s school fees is her greatest challenge. She works half days as a maid. Initially when her adult children died from aids, she had no one, but now there is a crèche she can take the 3-year old to. “It’s not easy, so difficult. I just do it because I have to.”

A new question occurs to me as I realize the trauma these gogos must be living under. It was this woman’s mention of her job as a maid which brought it to my mind. What is it like to save and plan for the following generation—all over again? She says her sons didn’t count because they were never any help. But she had a daughter who was a pillar to her and helped with her dead sisters’ and brothers’ orphans. But that daughter died eight months ago. “I almost lose my mind because of the strain.” Then she says what I have just caught a glimpse of. For thirty years she worked two or three maid jobs a day to pay for her children’s school fees. She dreamed and disciplined and helped with homework and made hard choices to get them through school, in the hope that they would live better lives than her. Now they are all dead and she is starting over with their children—the hopes and dreams and saving, making a home. “I do not have the strength or the years left to do this again.”

When I ask about what she got out of the granny workshop, she also mentions drawing her Tree of Life, and putting down experience as one of her fruits. She says to me, “It is so fresh in my mind, the loss of my daughter. The pain is still there, but it feels better in time. I pray daily and every night, asking for God to give me strength.” She repeats that her greatest need is school fees. School and uniforms are more expensive than when her own children went. Her greatest wish? That her grandchildren would go to school, finish school, and progress in life.

As we talk, she is washing plates, bathing the little one, and wiping noses. I turn to the children and ask them questions. Cristina is 10 and her favorite subject is English; she wants to be a nurse when she grows up. Romeo, 14, likes studying English and maths. He wants to be a policeman. I think of the police camps Mugabe has set up for indoctrinating children and ask Romeo why he wants this. He says he wants to arrest lawbreakers. I ask him how he helps his gogo, and he says he washes the clothes and cleans for her. The baby, who is 3, is HIV+, but “he is growing strong,” his grandmother tells me.

As Leonard drives me back to my hotel, we talk about the grandmothers’ traumas. I ask how he protects his own heart, thinking how mine feels now, sore and heavy. Leonard says, “Living day by day pushes you. It’s why I am alive. You can’t spend time with Katherine and not change.” He has one baby. He and his wife are both church elders. He thinks in terms of each day as a gift. His wife assists the ladies in their church’s orphan care. We talk about prayer and he says, “Your highest phone bill should be the one you have with God.”

Once inside my hotel room, I pace from the balcony to the bathroom. I feel like a bomb is about to go off inside me. I quiet myself enough to sit on the bed and meditate for 20 minutes, and it feels like a pressure cooker that’s found a thin escape for steam. That evening I eat in my room. Erik calls and asks how am I? Fine. Really? Really. I ask how he is and he tells me about our kids, work and church. He is in the car on the way to a meeting with our pastor, Michael. Near the end of the conversation I say, “Give my love to Mi. . . .” But I can’t get Michael’s name out of my mouth. I try his wife’s name, “Mic . . . Lesley and. . . .” I swallow. Erik asks what’s the matter? I laugh to cover up the emotion choking me. He says, “Anne, you’re not telling me everything. What’s going on there?” And then the tears start. Finally. They are the first real tears to flow. I can’t stop them. They pour down my cheeks and onto the phone. I can hardly answer him, “It’s just all so hopeless here.” He gets angry that “they” are showing me so much misery, and says, “Tell them to show you the good projects, you went there to find hope.” I say, it’s not so easy. He calms down a bit for me, and we say goodbye.

I sit on the side of my bed, wondering why Michael’s name should trigger such a tsunami of emotion. Was it the thought of my friends, my church, my home, my husband, picturing Erik in Michael and Lesley’s living room, hearing his voice, feeling the distance, aching at the contrast of our two worlds? That night the tears will not stop. I weep while I brush my teeth. I weep one pillow wet and start on a second, wondering all the while, where am I supposed to go, to find this hope I was supposed to see?

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