“The Beauty of the Nigerians” by Irene Ndiritu

My dear Liyema—

Wena uli wele lam, my twin, I never thought myself a person who would go with a married man but that is who I have become. For the past two years he paid for all of Zinzi’s medical bills.

I told everyone­—even Sakhumzi—that Madam Iffy helped me and I told the madam that your dollars helped me. Now I’m pregnant with his child. I’m talking about my boss, Ralu, my big Oga, as he calls himself.

I hear the madam talking to her friends about my uselessness. That I break gravy bowls, ruin the clothes and forget to cut the fat off the lamb before I stew it. How she would eat her words, if she knew that her husband cries with pleasure when he’s with me.

Sisi, I can see you now with your mouth wide open but please don’t judge me.

Do you remember when we used to ride in the taxi every evening from Mfuleni High? We were going to go to university on full bursaries. We were going to stop the madness of everyone in our family becoming a domestic worker. Gogo, mama, her sisters! We were in that taxi on the N2 saying, “No more domestic workers! Not us! It ends with us!”

Then, there I was, pregnant in Grade 11. While you buttoned up your uniform for school every morning, I was burping Zinzi on my shoulder.  When you started your first term at UWC, I wished you could carry me in your pocket so I could go to the lectures with you. While you took the taxi to campus in Rondebosch, I was taking the taxi to serve the Nigerians in Constantia. Sisi, it burned.

Then we entered the Green Card lottery thing. It was like a big joke, ha, ha. What a shock it was when you got that letter saying you had been selected!

Mama kept saying, “My baby is going to America,” and we danced around in a circle until we were dizzy. Mama borrowed from loan sharks, omatshonisa bengingqi. The whole church came with their friends and relatives and we cooked pots of chicken and rice. Before the night was over we had raised enough money for your ticket.

Now, look at us five years on. You’re about to graduate from university.

I’m in the same place, still in Kwa Langa, married to a big ixoxo. The only difference with him and a frog is that he doesn’t croak. The one thing that made me proud was my little girl, my beautiful Zinzi, and now she’s gone.

Please don’t think that I’m complaining. We are not all blessed in the same way, and perhaps my blessings await me.

The madam’s friends look at me sideways when I serve their tea, whispering.

“Eh Iffy—this one is too good looking. That light skin? Where does she get those clothes, the skinny jeans and the boots? You have to be careful-o! They may look stupid but they do steal husbands.”

Maybe Nigerian women are prophetesses?

But what rubbish! Is it stealing a husband if his wife treats him like he is the oldest shoe in the closet? Who can blame him? While she pays people to rub her back and feet, he has no one.

She lies on the sofa watching the Naija movies, eating popcorn that I must pop and bring to her in a special pink bowl, Khusela thixo, God forbid, she stands at the microwave for two minutes to pop the popcorn!

She wears a white paste on her face like the Xhosa boys when they are getting ready for circumcision. She’s in the bathtub with soap bubbles to her chin, cucumbers on her eyes and so many candles going that it looks like the bathroom is on fire. I sometimes ask myself if she smokes dagga.

I watch her rolling around with her black velvet sweat pants—the ones that say JUICY—in her echoing house and her fresh Brazilian swings from head to buttocks. She spends R3 000 at Woolworths on low-carb bread, wheat-free cake and sugar-free sugar, and pays me R4 000. How? Then her fingers bend in my face with the weight of her diamonds as she speaks to me like the worthless servant I am.

“Beauty, fetch those groceries I left in the Range Rover and please don’t slam the doors the way you like to do—argh—it’s not a Langa taxi!”

The baby is due in March. I haven’t told anybody else. Is it the right time, is it the wrong time? I don’t know. I almost fell over in shock when the nurse at Langa clinic showed me the tests. But now it’s been nearly three months and I am starting to feel like this baby will help my pain. Not that it can replace Zinzile.

You should feel blessed not to have been at the funeral. Everyone told me to be strong. They said, “Beauty! It’s going to be terrible! Be ready, be strong.”

I didn’t believe it. I thought, “Argh, there is nothing more terrible than seeing your child suffer and die.” I said, “I’m the one who holds everyone together when the world is falling apart.” Remember when father died?

Mama and gogo were both rolling around on the hospital floor like balahlwelwe ehlathini elimnyama, a barrel being pushed down a hill. I was standing there thinking what is the matter with everyone? We knew the man was sick for months!

The night when Zinzi died I was in her bed. I saw her breathe less and slower until finally, she lay still. She was holding my finger just like she did when she was a baby. When she passed, her hand let go of my finger.

I knew she was dying before anyone else did. A mother knows. The day before she died she sat up in bed and laughed a lot. Mama and gogo whispered, “Yhooo—she is better today.” But I knew.

The smell on her body had changed. She smelled very sweet and sour at the same time like pineapple juice mixed with urine but no one else smelled it. Her fingernails were yellow and her tongue was grey like those lizards we used to chase when we were kids.

The morning of the burial, I said to myself, surely today is the easy part—after watching her waste away, what could be worse? But when I saw the first heap of dirt cover the coffin the grief made me mad. I was climbing on top of the coffin.

I begged them to bury me with her, “please, let me keep her dead body, please don’t make me leave her in this hole all by herself.”

I hadn’t worn my best panties and my dress was all the way up to my waist. I did not care that there were men pulling at me, grabbing my thighs to get me off the coffin. I saw mother cover up her face with a white scarf, before I collapsed.

I don’t remember much after that except the icy rain beating on my face while I was being carried into a car, because my legs refused to move forward. There were people I did not know sitting on white plastic chairs in mama’s verandah eating pap and tripe. I don’t know where the chairs came from. When I walked past them, their mouths froze.

I was screaming like a crazy person. Sanukwenz’ingathi nivelana nam, qhubekani nitye. “Eat! Continue! Don’t pretend to starve on account of my pain!”

Everyone can eat tripe and pop open cold Fanta, all on Zinzi’s funeral insurance cover. Then they can go home and continue on to the next day, the next funeral, the next wedding.

What about me? Must I close my eyes and see Zinzi in a coffin every night?

I see her banging on the walls of the box and pushing and scratching the cover until her bony fingers bleed. I know she’s dead. I dressed her cold body myself. Her limbs were stiff and her skin rubbery and when I tried to open her eyes all I saw was the white. So why do I have these thoughts of her being alive, screaming for help in her coffin?

Sakhumzi is in pain also but he just drinks. What a shame it is that we cannot hold on to each other because I know his pain like he does mine. I cannot tell you the last time we talked like we are supposed to, like a real husband and wife. We do have sex but it’s mostly for him and I lie there like a dead fish, ifish efileyo, and when he is finished I turn over and go to sleep.

For a year and a half, he pretended Zinzi was not sick until the day she died. Spending his nights in MamLizzy’s shebeen and going to work smelling like a BP station every morning. Lizzy! What kind of a woman will show her face in church without shame, when she knows well that she feeds her fat isisu with money that should be feeding another woman’s children?

Gogo says to me, “mzukulwana wam, men will be men.”

I’m tired of excusing him the way mama was excusing father. They call themselves men? They are not men.  I’m earning R4 000 a month and how is it I can put away R500 every month. How is it I was able to buy a funeral cover for Zinzi? So I ask Sakhumzi, “why is your R10 000 not enough for us?”

It’s a miracle he can keep a job but I suppose it doesn’t take much of a brain to plaster a wall. I’m just happy he is drinking umqombothi, not that nasty skokiaan him and his friends used to buy from the other shebeen witch who was brewing in her house. You remember, the one who blinded the men in the township with her poison brew?

So, a month after Zinzi is in the ground, I am back in Constantia. Madam Iffy sent me a SMS the day after the funeral: “Beauty, I pray you are finding some peace in this time of pain. Would you please inform me when you will be returning to work?”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Her husband sent me an SMS on the too. He told me he is here to support me in anyway. “Just name it,” he said.

The truth is that even though my body wants to lie in bed all day from the grief and the pregnancy being here is good for me. The children keep me busy and I love the little one Amaka.

The madam is still the same selfish woman she was when I started working for her 9 years ago. 1DERMUM WP. Ha! What kind of Wonder Mum is this who cannot survive without her maid?

So she asked me to come back and I couldn’t say no. In the middle of the day she will arrive home from work and go to her room to lie down. She says, “Beauty, please don’t let the kids wake me. I’ve got a headache from hell.”

What about me? What about the days I have a headache from hell? Every Monday morning, I still have to be up at 5 a.m. to make it to Constantia by 7 a.m. and khuselo thixo I’m late. God forbid! If she has to make the oats, or butter the toast herself, she’s in a mood all day—hissing and puffing like keiskamma, and you know the puff adder is the worst snake you can ever step on.

I cannot say I blame her. The middle child, Obi, is hectic. If I don’t have my eyes on him for even a minute, I find him strangling the dog or feeding the fish, and you know, when the fish die, they blame me, saying I have been ‘overfeeding’ the fish. What nonsense. What kind of a rubbish pet is a fish anyway to keep; what kind of animal dies from eating too much? I’ll write again soon.

Your twin,

Beauty

#

Dear Liyema—

You’re as silent as a cemetery. I know I have disappointed you with my news. I don’t know what more I can say, to make you understand that I did what any desperate mother would do.

Madam didn’t help me much when Zinzi became sick. She brought her to Tygerberg for tests and she paid all the balances, but then she dropped us when things became too difficult.

We tried a clinic here in Langa but they did not have chemotherapy. So we had to go back to Tygerberg and as you know, the government refused to cover us. I couldn’t have done it without you and cousin Siya sending me dollars. Madam knows I only make R4 000. But still she would say, “I’ll just take it out of your paycheck.”

Then she blamed her husband. Rubbish!

“Ralu says things are very tight with his business right now. We will help you where we can but we can’t afford to pay for everything. Besides, I’m sure your sister in America is helping you, nhe?”

 

The woman spends R3 000 on a blouse that not even Motsepe and his tsotsi boys would steal! Her weave is R6 000! She pays a white girl R7 000 to take the kids around and to swim with them, but she taxes me R200 for broken bowls.

She travels to shop, and hosts Nigerian women she calls “my sistos” for lunch and tea. They come to the house and sit like idiots, with their long Brazilian weaves and their expensive handbags lined next to their high-heeled feet. They look like travellers waiting for the train.

“Oh my God, look at your hawnbeg! Is dat the new one from Lawndon’?” The other one answers, “Ah! Leave my handbag! You are one to talk! Look at your shoes! Ibeen eyeing dem since you walked through dat door. Are dis the ones you got in Dubai last month?”

After nine years, I still get no gratitude.

“Beauty, I go land you a slap now! Wetin dey happen? What’s going on? Dem send you? Have the gods sent you to torment me?”

That’s how she talks to me. I want to cut her tongue out and throw it to the township dogs.

Your twin forever—

Beauty

#

Dear Liyema

Good news! It’s a girl! Ralu paid for a scan. The baby moves like a balloon in there. She is all over swimming like a fish! I must say I am worried her head is very big. But the woman said the head always looks bigger when the baby is inside.

I have told Sakhumzi I am leaving him and I have told him he is not the father. He is free to go drink himself to death like papa. I told mama and gogo. Gogo started speaking to the angels who hang around her nowadays. She sits by the television from the minute she wakes up and talks to the characters on Isidingo like they’re having tea with her in the living room.

Mama said she knew two years ago that I was going with the big Oga.

“First there was the extra money, then you started saying too many nice things about the man,” she said. We were both in the kitchen. I was stirring pap and she was chopping ikhaphetshu.

She kept stopping the knife to talk one hundreds words in one minute then she would start chopping again. “He became a king, a humble saint. Jesus himself is not all of the things you say the man is. Before you were his mistress you used to say ‘Argh! If she does not like how I make the fufu she must make it herself because I am not a Naija and I don’t eat fufu!’ When he became your lover, you started moaning that the madam does not treat him like a king. The truth is no Naija millionaire with a plane of his own will leave his wife for the maid! I just pray he will care for this baby.”

Mama worries too much. My Zinzi was a PEP baby. Not this baby. Her road will be paved all the way to heaven by her Naija tata.

Uhlale kakuhle wele lam,

Beauty.

#

Dear Liyema,

The doctors say that Madam’s sweet little girl Amaka has a disease. Not the kind of disease that will kill her but a horrible one all the same. I always worried something is not right with the child. She is two and a half years old and she does not speak much. My Zinzi was telling stories before she was two.

I saw that Amaka was always arranging things. She would be in her room arranging shoes. The shoes must be in a straight line. Then she would go to the other rooms and take out all the shoes and arrange them in a straight line.

When she has her crayons on a table, she wants them to be in a straight line. When the other children move the crayons she screams as if rats are biting her feet. When the white nanny puts her in the swimming pool in the afternoon, Amaka becomes stiff as a rod. You must see it—it’s as if electricity is running through her body.

She separates her peas from her carrots and places them on each side of the plate—they mustn’t touch. She won’t eat sauce on her food. The rice must be separate and dry, and the chicken must be dry. The touch of sauce in her mouth makes her hang her tongue out like a snake for hours.

When it became too strange for me, I told madam and she started to pay more attention. Later, I came to find out that Amaka’s doctor had noticed her slowness since she was 15 months but she told madam they should give Amaka another year because she walked on time and she also passed her hearing test.

Amaka has been sent to another doctor and then another and now they say she has a terrible disease called Autism. She will have to be taught how to speak and how to be with other people.

A woman comes home to help her speak by playing music and sounds and making Amaka repeat what she hears. Another one makes Amaka look her in the eye. She gives Amaka a stuffed lamb and asks Amaka to pass it back while looking the woman in the eyes. She touches Amaka’s arms and face with small and large feathers.

On some days Amaka enjoys her lessons but others she is difficult. Yesterday she threw a plate full of oats at her mother. Madam Iffy gave her a hiding, Amaka went crazy and started biting her mother and Iffy ran to the bathroom and started wailing like she had received news that someone had died! I could hear her banging on the door and throwing things—I heard glass smashing. In my arms Amaka was also wailing. When madam left the bathroom after an hour, I went in to find she had ripped the shower curtain, smashed bottles and all kinds of things from the medicine cabinet.

“Beauty, how can I be so unlucky?” she said, later while I bathed Amaka. “Why am I the one God has chosen?”

There is more bad news. She is pregnant again.

When I found out I felt a big sack of water push down from my belly to my bladder. She was lying in her bed with a small cloth over her eyes as she always does nowadays. It seems that since she was told Amaka is not right, her headaches have gone wild.

I brought her tea to soothe her. When I was done pouring into her cup, I told her that I am seven months pregnant and I need leave for three months.

She fell back down on her puffy pillow and pulled the tiny cloth over her eyes again, her red nail polish shining over the cloth. I really just wanted to shake her and rip her weave out.

What is the matter with this woman? I stood there quietly waiting for her to say something and she lifted the cloth to see if I was gone.

“Beauty I can’t do this now,” she said, squinting. “My head is killing me and I am sick to my stomach. I am three months pregnant and the children will need you more now. The next morning I was in the kitchen boiling oats and eggs for the children.

She came in dressed in white cotton pajamas and a silk cloth around her head. She started to bring out the spinach, avocado and all the things she puts in her juicing machine every morning.

“Beauty, you cannot take three months’ leave,” she said. She was busy throwing the stuff in the machine. “You didn’t even take three months’ leave when your daughter died.”

I told her I wouldn’t leave my newborn baby at home from Monday to Friday to sleep in Constantia.

“Even when Zinzi was born I stayed with her for a year before I found this job,” I said. “My cousin is ready to work in my place for three months.”

“No, absolutely not. I can’t give you three months! People are crying for jobs, and you want three months?” She had walked up to me and was talking in my face. I have seen this in the Naija movies. The women act very strong when they get angry. They grow tall and fierce.

“I can’t have a new person with Amaka. I will be nearly at the end of my pregnancy, barely able to walk. How am I to deal with her when she starts having one of her episodes and deal with Obi at the same time, when he won’t stop running around the way he does like a crazy person?”

I left the oats and the eggs boiling and left her standing in the middle of the kitchen. I ran to the cottage. I must have cried for a whole hour. The baby would not stop kicking inside me.

That night I was sitting in the dining room with the kids, while they ate their supper. The house phone rang and when I picked it up in the kitchen, a woman with a thick Nigerian accent said that she is Ralu’s sister in Lagos. She said she had lost Madam Iffy’s mobile phone number and she urgently needed to talk to her in regards to Ralu.

I quickly took the phone to madam, on the couch where she is watching Naija movies still in her pajamas that she had not taken off the whole day. When she took the call she said, “Who dis?”

She turned down the television and was quiet on the phone for a while.

“You saying your name Clara? Clara who? What you mean, you have a son? A son for who? Why you telling me about you son and I don’ even know you even from the marketplace? I don’ know what you talking about Ralu son, Ralu son. If he Ralu son then call Ralu. Don’ comb here calling me about Ralu son, do you onderstand me?  Don’ ever call me again.”

Yhoo! Liyema, I can’t believe it! Andiyikholelwa lento ndiyvayo, ingaba lendonda yinto eqhele uyenza lhe? How many other women does this man have? How many other children are there that I don’t know about?

Iffy stood up quickly and went to her bedroom and slammed the door. After a while, I cracked open the door and saw that she was on the floor, holding a pillow to her face to muffle the crying. She was grunting. Her arms were trembling so much they flapped like wings.

Amaka strolled in the room with her stuffed lamb and sat crossed legged next to her mother. She put her lamb on her mother’s lap and stroked her arm the way she would with her feathers.

Both our hearts are breaking. But she doesn’t know mine.

Your twin,

Beauty


Irene Ndiritu‘s still untitled book of short stories will be completed under the MFA program at the University of Cape Town. It explores themes of race and xenophobia, class and religious conflict all within the context of immigrant life in the US, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. Prior to this, she worked as a newspaper journalist in the United States. She received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and also completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in the US. She was born in Kenya and currently resides with her family in Cape Town.

Cover image: public domain.

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